At this point, it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of Congressional Republicans have responded to the Trump administration’s gutting of the U.S. Postal Service with near silence.
The president openly admitted last week that he is blocking additional funding to the USPS to undermine its ability to handle the coming surge of mail-in votes this fall. U.S. mail delivery has also slowed down dramatically nationwide since his handpicked postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a major GOP donor who has been in frequent communication with the Republican National Committee, began instituting a raft of new policies for reasons of “efficiency.” These have included cutting overtime pay for postal workers, removing sorting machines from postal facilities, and eliminating mail boxes.
Yet despite the unique threat these moves have posed to American democracy, the only GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill to speak out are those facing competitive re-elections this fall, such as Montana Senator Steve Daines and Maine Senator Susan Collins.
Collins is in a particularly precarious position; a July poll released by Colby College showed her trailing her Democratic opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, by five points. Last Thursday, Collins sent a letter to DeJoy asking him to “address” the mail delivery delays across the nation. “I share the goal of putting the USPS back on a financially sustainable path,” she wrote. “However, this goal cannot be achieved by shortchanging service to the public.”
As it turns out, Collins is actually one of the members of Congress most responsible for the Postal Service’s devastation. Long before DeJoy started manipulating the USPS, Collins was at the forefront of a bill that crippled the agency’s finances.
In 2005, she sponsored and introduced legislation, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), that required the USPS to pre-pay the next 50 years worth of health and retirement benefits for all of its employees—a rule that no other federal agency must follow. As chair of the Senate oversight panel at the time, she shepherded the bill’s passage, along with her House GOP counterpart Tom Davis, during a lame-duck session of Congress. It passed by a voice vote without any objections—a maneuver that gave members little time to consider what they were doing.
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To meet the mandate for prefunding USPS’s health and retirement benefits, the measure required the Postal Service to place roughly $5.5 billion into a pension fund every year between 2007 and 2016, followed by sizable additional payments, making it impossible for the institution to run a profit. To make it even harder for the USPS to make money, the law prohibited the agency from any new activities outside of delivering mail. In an essay for the Washington Monthly last year, New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell, who voted for the bill, called it “one of the worst pieces of legislation Congress has passed in a generation.”
That’s because it saddled the institution with debt that no other government agency—or private company—is responsible for. At the same time, it effectively blocked the USPS from taking advantage of new opportunities to provide services and garner revenue when it needed to make up for losses stemming from declines in first-class mail due to the rise of the Internet and email.
Now, the post currently has $160.9 billion in debt, of which $119.3 billion is the result of pre-funding retiree benefits. That was by design. As Pascrell wrote, “To argue that the Postal Service needs to be privatized, conservatives need to show that it is dysfunctional, and there’s no better way to do that than by weighing the agency down with impossible financial obligations.”
Collins’s role in passing that law has not gone unnoticed in Maine. “She weakened the Postal Service to the point where people like our president can say, ‘There’s a crisis here,’” John Curtis of the Maine State Association of Letter Carriers told the Maine Beacon. Maine Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree last week called the prefunding mandate in Collins’s 2006 law “the number one cause of USPS’s financial enduring problems.”
On Tuesday, amid a growing outcry from state attorneys general (who threatened a lawsuit), Democratic lawmakers, USPS workers, and average citizens fearful about mounting delays in delivery of their medication, the Postmaster General announced that he would suspend the policies he’s enacted that have slowed the nation’s mail service.
It’s not clear, however, how much damage has already been done. Nor is it clear whether the White House will accept an emergency infusion of government funds for USPS to get it through the election season, as the Democrats and a few Republicans like Collins have called for.
But while a temporary jolt of cash makes sense, it won’t solve USPS’s long-term problems. That will require repealing the PAEA’s prefunding mandate. Maine’s Independent Senator Angus King has come out in favor of such a repeal. Collins, notably, has not.