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Time to deliver for the U.S. Postal Service for the sake of economic recovery | COMMENTARY

A mailman wearing a mask and gloves to protect himself and others from COVID-19, loads a postal truck with packages at a United States Postal Service (USPS) post office location in Washington, DC, April 16, 2020.
A mailman wearing a mask and gloves to protect himself and others from COVID-19, loads a postal truck with packages at a United States Postal Service (USPS) post office location in Washington, DC, April 16, 2020.(SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

It was encouraging to see Maryland’s two U.S. senators sign the latest protest letter calling on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to move forward with a $10 billion emergency loan to the U.S. Postal Service without using the coronavirus outbreak as a pretext for forced privatization. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin were among the 29 Democratic senators who urged the agency move forward with the loan to avoid an interruption in service, noting that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, postal delivery is more important than ever. Yet we’re going to guess that the May 6 letter had all the sway that appeals to decency, empathy and common sense tend to have with President Donald Trump which is to say, not much. And lo and behold, just as senators were finalizing their missive, Mr. Trump was appointing a new postmaster general, longtime political fundraiser Louis DeJoy, who is likely to deliver whatever the White House orders.

Here’s why all Americans should care about the games being played with the post office right now: relief checks, prescriptions, out-of-town packages, cards and letters from friends and relatives far away still arrive through snow, rain, heat and “gloom of night” to 160 million American homes and businesses. Why the $10 billion loan from Uncle Sam? For the same reason that the federal government provided small business loans and other emergency aid — to keep the U.S. economy afloat. The COVID-19 outbreak has seriously reduced the mail load and, most crucially to the USPS, postage sales, its lifeblood. Without help, the quasi-government agency could run out of cash by October. And then all bets are off for what that could mean for service, particularly to the nation’s rural towns and villages where costs are high but revenue low.

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What’s been especially galling about the Trump administration’s posturing on post offices is the amount of misinformation that’s been spewed. For example, President Trump has said, repeatedly, that the USPS is losing billions of dollars because it gives too-low package delivery rates to Amazon whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, happens to own The Washington Post, a newspaper that has clearly gotten under his skin. A lot. Yet package service isn’t where the postal service loses its money. Indeed, package delivery is something of a profit center that has, in recent years, kept it afloat against a tide of a shrinking number of letters in this age of email. Indeed, federal law requires the USPS to recover costs from parcel shipping and, to this day, the Trump administration has failed to document that it hasn’t lived up to that law.

But going after Mr. Bezos is only part of what motivates the president. The other half of the equation is that Mr. Trump and his fellow Republicans have long sought to privatize the mail and put the USPS on the same level as FedEx, UPS and others on the grounds that it would produce one or more leaner, more efficient (and less unionized) for-profit organizations. What they generally fail to mention is that, as studies have shown, it would also raise rates and reduce delivery service. It would also be bad news for the nation’s 600,000 postal workers.

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The bottom line is that this is a really horrible time to even be talking about postal reform. First, because putting mail delivery at risk when there’s already so much economic uncertainty thanks to the coronavirus pandemic is just foolhardy. Second, a political vendetta against one individual (no matter how deep and painful the perceived slight to his eminence in the Oval Office) isn’t sufficient grounds to upend one of this nation’s oldest institutions. And third, the amount of misinformation associated with this debacle is mind-numbing. It starts with parcel delivery rates but it often extends to mischaracterizations of the agency’s costly retiree health benefits obligation including the unusual mandate approved during the George W. Bush years to pre-fund them, a burden virtually unique among organizations of its kind.

Reorganization? Reducing those expensive retirement benefits? Ending Saturday delivery? There are any number of reasonable steps Washington can take to make the USPS leaner and more efficient. But now is not the time when so much is riding on job growth and especially not with a proverbial gun aimed at the heads of all who depend on the mail. Toying with Mr. Bezos is one thing; threatening the nation’s economic recovery by withholding $10 billion Congress appropriated weeks ago is another. Americans actually like the current state of postal delivery, as a recent Pew Research Center poll found a whopping 91% approval rate, higher than any other federal agency (even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). A president seeking reelection would be ill-advised to target the men and women in the blue-gray uniforms who are doing heroic work in difficult circumstances.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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