In this Aug. 24, 2020 photo, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the Postal Service on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP, File)

In 2016, the politics around the U.S. Postal Service were fractious and fraught. The venerable service, found in just about every American city, town, and hamlet, was in financial peril. A congressional straitjacket had been placed on the USPS for the previous 10 years: a requirement that it fund its retiree health care plan in advance, something that’s unheard of at public agencies or private companies. 

Following the cue of his initial postmaster general, President Barack Obama repeatedly proposed saving money by eliminating Saturday delivery, but the proposal generated too much backlash, and reform efforts stalled in Congress. The crisis was exacerbated by dueling procedural holds from Senators Mitch McConnell and Bernie Sanders. Obama nominated three Democrats and two Republicans to the traditionally bipartisan USPS Board of Governors. Vermont independent Sanders blocked the two Republicans because they were out to privatize the Postal Service. Kentucky Republican McConnell, then the majority whip, reciprocated by blocking the rest. The stalemate led to not one or two but all of the board’s nine presidentially appointed seats left vacant by the time Donald Trump took office in 2017.

It’s hard to believe, but in 2020, postal politics became even more polarized. The Board of Governors—all of whom were appointed by Trump—chose a Trump donor, Louis DeJoy, as postmaster general. The 62-year-old owner of a logistics company, DeJoy took a hammer to the USPS, whose roots date to 1775 and a postmaster by the name of Benjamin Franklin. DeJoy’s disruptions slowed deliveries before the 2020 presidential election, provoking outrage among Democrats who worried that it would disrupt the flow of mail-in ballots during the pandemic. (Many states had joined those with preexisting robust vote-from-home systems so citizens didn’t have to risk COVID-19 to exercise their most sacred constitutional right.) Meanwhile, the USPS balance sheet continued to run red. 

In early 2021, DeJoy released a 10-year reform plan, including details for deliberately slower service to cut costs. Congressional Democrats denounced the measure. Porter McConnell, who works for the progressive activist group Americans for Financial Reform, through which she founded the Save the Post Office coalition, told me DeJoy’s plan amounted to “a losing strategy of cutting the USPS to health” and “the only plans he’s qualified to make at this point are his own retirement plans.” (Coincidentally, DeJoy became postmaster general in part because he was promoted by Board of Governors Chair Mike Duncan, and Duncan got his post thanks to a politician for whom he has raised funds: Porter’s father, Mitch.)

Then, in February, in a neck-snapping turn of events, the bipartisan duo of Representatives Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, and James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, shepherded through the House legislation to reform the USPS and stabilize its finances with the support of DeJoy, progressive activists, and just about everybody else. In March, the Senate followed suit, led by Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio. The bill is on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk. Even Porter’s father, the Senate Republican leader, voted for the bill. The legislation finally and mercifully paved the way for ending the “pre-funding” of retiree health benefits, which represented an existential threat to the USPS.

Throughout the Biden presidency, many progressives have demanded that Democrats pursue big reforms by partisan means, such as using party line, budget reconciliation votes, or abolishing the filibuster. But in the battle for the USPS, progressives cannily played by traditional Washington rules: work across the aisle; focus on ideas on which everyone agrees; leave out the notions on which everyone does not.

“This is a skinny bill, but this is not a compromise bill,” Porter McConnell said. “We wish there were other things in it. But there’s nothing in it that we have less than wholehearted support for.” Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, agrees that the lack of poison pills in the bill was critical for its broad support. “We had to keep the bill narrow, and I don’t mean ‘small’ when I say narrow,” recalls Dimondstein, whose union endorsed both of Sanders’s presidential campaigns, “but narrow in the sense of the issues that can be addressed.”

Getting to “Yes” required all sides to acknowledge fundamental truths. The parties agreed that Congress screwed up in 2006 when it required the Postal Service to pre-fund retiree health benefits, with 10 years of annual payments of about $5.5 billion even though no retiree health plan, public or private, is financed in this cockamamie way. The idea was to beef up the retirement system before USPS revenues declined from decreased use of traditional mail. But the USPS couldn’t make the payments and is $57 billion behind schedule. The 2022 reform bill ends the pre-funding idiocy, wipes past debt off the books, and stabilizes USPS retiree health care by enrolling new retirees in Medicare. 

Some conservatives view relying on Medicare for retiree health care as a rearranging of deck chairs on a fiscal TitanicThe Heritage Foundation claims that the bill would accelerate Medicare’s imminent insolvency. (The Congressional Budget Office concluded that the bill would reduce spending on health benefits.) To prevent Republicans from jumping ship, according to The Washington Post, “DeJoy whipped GOP votes in person, appearing at the party’s House and Senate conferences to discuss the legislation.” In the end, most Republicans in each chamber supported the bill.

While all sides wanted to chuck the pre-funding, they remain divided on other issues, especially over what level of service the USPS should provide. Progressives want to return to the high-service standards abandoned in 2012, including overnight delivery for first-class mail sent within local areas. (That standard is now two days.) But fast service conflicts with DeJoy’s 10-year plan for even slower service to cut costs. For example, the standard delivery time for first-class mail used to be no longer than three days, but now it’s five.

How did negotiators get around that disagreement? An early draft of the bill granted the USPS a waiver from subjecting its service standards to a regulatory process, giving DeJoy and future postmasters general a free hand. But, as The American Prospect reported, the waiver provision was abandoned in May 2021 after the American Postal Workers Union said it couldn’t support a bill with such a provision. The result is that nothing in the bill immediately derails DeJoy’s 10-year plan, let alone mandates a return to faster service. But the bill maintains an oversight regime that allows DeJoy’s critics to fight another day.

Progressives could have blown up the deal over another issue, this one impacting the environment. But they wisely didn’t cling to their wish list at the expense of progress. At issue was the planned purchase of nearly 150,000 mail delivery trucks. Progressives, who understandably eye every line item for its effects on climate change, wanted mostly electric vehicles. But even though they pushed for green mail trucks, they didn’t make it a deal breaker, and DeJoy is moving ahead with purchasing cheaper gas-powered trucks. 

And despite all the controversy around DeJoy’s handling of 2020 election ballots, nothing in the bill touches on how the USPS will handle mail ballots going forward, though reforms could still be addressed in the upcoming budget progress. Biden just included in his budget proposal $10 billion for election infrastructure, some of which would be used to expand the use of mail voting and ensure that ballots without postage are still delivered and counted. 

The flexibility shown by progressives reflects the sacred nature of the USPS. A 2020 Pew poll found that 91 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Postal Service, higher than any other governmental agency. Post offices are visible in every American community—urban, suburban, and rural—helping the USPS escape the culture war vortex. That popularity could prove to be a springboard for compromises on other issues.

Dimondstein is optimistic about the Postal Service’s future. “Anytime you have this kind of unity around the public good like this,” he said, “it certainly can carry over to other things.” He also stressed that there is already bipartisan support for the post office at the grassroots level: “The Republicans as much as the Democrats hear from their constituents back home, ‘What the heck’s happened to my mail? How come it’s taken so long?’”

To Porter McConnell, whose mother is Mitch McConnell’s first wife, a feminist historian, the far-flung network of treasured government outposts is an ideal entry point for progressives who support providing additional government services, such as “nonbank financial services and, ultimately, free checking and savings accounts like they used to have up until the 60s.” 

DeJoy has responded to progressive calls and implemented a pilot postal banking program at four locations. Still, Porter McConnell is unimpressed with the execution: “They didn’t do any advertising, [and] it’s an incredibly niche product.” McConnell’s position on postal banking aligns her with populist senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, not her prominent father.

“In Appalachia,” she noted, “often to check your email, you have to drive to the highest hill in town and hold your phone up,” so why not turn small-town post office parking lots into wireless internet hot spots? Moreover, “not every little town has a FedEx Kinkos … The ability to do things like print and fax and check a computer terminal, all those things would be enormously useful in, especially, rural communities that are often represented by Republicans.” She also expressed admiration for an option available to Japanese mail customers: health checks for elderly parents. Some U.S. post offices already “do it just out of the goodness of their heart,” she said. Still, it could be formalized into an extra service. 

McConnell, who has been with Americans for Financial Reform for nearly five years and took on illicit tax havens as director of the Financial Transparency Coalition for a similar amount of time, wants the post office to embrace change. “There was a time in 1911 where there was a hot national debate about whether USPS should be allowed to deliver packages,” she recalled, with Wells Fargo resisting the competition, “and then the parcel post was born.” The lesson? “The idea that USPS shouldn’t reinvent itself from time to time, I think, is not borne by history.”

The opportunities presented by having a post office present in every neighborhood fuel McConnell’s dislike of DeJoy’s cramped vision: “There’s no need to do what DeJoy’s 10-year plan does, which is run away from the fact that there are more post offices than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. The point is to run toward that … Given that you’re going to continue to deliver the mail to folks, what are the other things we can do to keep USPS profitable and keep delivering services?”

But to realize that vision requires, first and foremost, a functioning post office. With DeJoy willing to scrap the disastrous pre-funding mandate that threatened the USPS’s fiscal foundation, progressives wisely pushed everything aside, including their disdain for DeJoy, and seized the opportunity. Let it not be said that progressives can’t play the Washington game. 

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.