DONALD TRUMP has long held the United States Postal Service (USPS) in contempt. In April he called it “a joke,” and contended it was losing money delivering packages for Amazon. That is untrue, but it provided a plausible explanation for his loathing. He wanted the USPS to quadruple its package-handling rates because he thought it would harm Amazon, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post, which covers the president accurately and unflatteringly.
In May Mr Trump installed a new postmaster-general, Louis DeJoy. Unlike many of his predecessors, Mr DeJoy has never worked for the USPS: he ran a logistics company in which he still holds shares, which some argue creates a conflict of interest. He has been a generous donor to Republicans and Mr Trump. He implemented operational changes that led to mail slowdowns. When some on the left began musing that these changes were intended to hinder voting by mail, they were dismissed as conspiracy theorists. On August 13th, however, Mr Trump all but admitted their suspicions. He opposes funding the USPS, he said, because “if they don’t get [the money], that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
The USPS is rapidly losing money: $4.5bn from January to March, more than double its losses for the same period last year. Its financial woes have three main causes—one acute and two chronic. The acute problem is covid-19. At least 2,400 postal workers have caught the virus; at least 60 have died; more than 17,000 of its 630,000 employees have been quarantined; and it has had to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for its workers. Though package volume and revenue have grown during the pandemic, along with Americans’ online shopping, marketing and first-class mail have both declined (one-time census mailing staved off a revenue decline in first-class mail, but volume fell).
The decline in first-class mail—the USPS’s most profitable offering—is also a chronic problem: in the digital age, people are sending fewer letters, birthday cards and postcards. Compounding that problem is the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), a law passed with bipartisan support in 2006 that requires USPS to prepay a large share of future retirees’ health benefits—a burden imposed on no other federal agency. Some on the left want Congress to repeal PAEA. That looks unlikely, both because Republicans would not support it, and because it would leave the USPS with sizeable unfunded obligations.
On current trends, in the absence of relief or reform, the USPS estimates that it could run out of money sometime between April and October 2021. House Democrats included money for the USPS in their version of the CARES Act, a covid-relief bill enacted in March, but after Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said Mr Trump would veto any legislation that included USPS funding, it was cut out of the final bill. The only relief the USPS has so far received is a $10bn line of credit from the Treasury.
Ostensibly to save money, Mr DeJoy implemented operational changes last month. Instead of setting as a paramount goal delivering to customers all mail received by a post office on a given morning, the new rules forbid carriers from leaving late or making extra trips back to the station, as often happens if more mail arrives than a single truck can hold. Lori Cash, a postal worker in Orchard Park, New York, explains that carriers at her post office have to leave at 9am, and any mail not on their trucks by then does not get delivered that day. As a result, she says some customers have seen their mail delayed by two days. For a magazine or advertisement, that delay may be trivial; for prescriptions, however, or payments to a small business, it could prove far more serious. It could also be the difference between a mailed ballot being counted or discarded.
More worryingly, reports have come from across America of sorting machines being removed from mail-processing plants and mailboxes being unbolted and removed. The slowdown in sorting capacity because of machine removal appears particularly acute in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Texas—all battleground states. The USPS sent letters in July warning 46 states that it cannot guarantee that all ballots mailed on time will be delivered in time to be counted. Barack Obama said that Mr Trump is trying to “actively kneecap the postal service” and that Republicans are “so scared of people voting that [they] are now willing to undermine what is part of the basic infrastructure of American life.”
Setting aside the moral questions concerning a strategy to starve the USPS in order to hinder Americans’ ability to vote during a pandemic, politically it carries real risks. A Pew Research Centre survey taken earlier this year showed that 91% of Democrats and Republicans viewed the USPS favourably. The service is particularly important in rural America: unlike private carriers, it is legally required to deliver mail to all addresses, and many people in sparsely populated areas have no other way to vote or get their prescriptions. Even ordinarily unwavering Trump supporters such as Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, have begun worrying in public.
The House Oversight Committee, which has jurisdiction over the USPS, summoned Mr DeJoy to testify at an emergency hearing on August 24th. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said she will call the House back from recess this week to vote on legislation that would bar USPS from implementing any operational or service changes until at least January 1st 2021. Jim Cooper, among the most mild-mannered, centrist Democrats in the House, tweeted that his chamber must “subpoena the Postmaster General, and if he fails to appear, we should send the Sgt at Arms to arrest him.” The administration appears to be softening its stand. Mark Meadows, Mr Trump’s chief of staff, announced a halt to sorting-machine removals, while the USPS said it would halt mailbox removals until after the election. On August 16th, Mr Meadows also expressed openness to funding the USPS.
Mr DeJoy, whose office declined The Economist’s interview request and who Congressional Democrats say has not been available to them, released a statement averring that the USPS must “redouble our efforts to focus on our plans to improve operational efficiency and to further control overtime expenditures.” Labour accounts for most of USPS’s costs; finding efficiencies and reining in overtime may well save the service money.
Even so, many question why Mr DeJoy opted to implement those changes just months before a presidential election that will be unusually reliant on mailed ballots. Mr Trump has repeatedly warned that voting by mail risks widespread fraud, which—given the infinitesimally low rates of fraudulent mailed ballots—seems less a genuine concern than an effort to sow doubt about an election that he may lose. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from northern Virginia who chairs the subcommittee that oversees USPS, calls Mr DeJoy’s rationale “a smokescreen…Under the guise of ‘We can’t afford it and we’re making efficiencies’, it’s directly affecting the delivery of mail on the eve of an election.”
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on August 8th in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Law of the letter”