Joe Biden and his likely incoming administration must make a basic decision about how they will deal with the large and financially troubled U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
Option one is to continue, even accelerate, House Democrats’ policy of belligerence toward Republican Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Option two is to recognize the reality that DeJoy is likely to remain as Postmaster General for the next few years and that he is a potential ally for overdue holistic postal reforms. Conciliation is the practical alternative that best serves the American people.
USPS Is Insulated From The Winds Of Politics By Design
USPS is a unique organization: a 100 percent government agency that is designed to operate independently of political winds. It can do so in large part because its funding comes almost entirely from sales for postage and related delivery services.
That said, USPS must be responsive to the concerns of Congress. A series of recent Congressional hearings, especially by the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee, placed additional pressure on USPS to deliver mail-in ballots in a timely manner, which USPS achieved.
Aside from championing and negotiating potential legislation, the chief tool a president has to influence USPS is to make nominations to its Board of Governors and the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), an independent regulatory agency. The Governors can choose to name, or remove, a Postmaster General. Though a member of the Board, the Postmaster General cannot vote on his potential removal.
Democrat Control Of USPS Board Of Governors Unlikely Soon
The USPS Board of Governors is the driving force for implementing policy and change at USPS. As the Board’s website says, it “directs the exercise of the powers of the Postal Service, directs and controls its expenditures, reviews its practices, conducts long-range planning, approves officer compensation and sets policies on all postal matters. The Board takes up matters such as service standards and capital investments.”
Excluding the Postmaster General, the Board currently has four Republicans and two Democrats, plus three vacancies. The soonest that a Republican Governor’s term is set to expire is December 8, 2021.
The ability to “pack the USPS Board” with Democrats will depend on the composition of the Senate. Theoretically, a 5-4 Democratic majority on the Board is possible if three Democratic nominees are confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Even with Democrat control of the U.S. Senate, though, it would be a breach of Senate protocols to ram through three Democrat-only nominees and the political costs are potentially high.
Unlike political appointees in Cabinet agencies, USPS Governors and PRC Commissioners can only be removed by the President “for cause.” This would require a criminal conviction or a grave dereliction of duty, which are highly unlikely to happen.
Furthermore, finding qualified candidates for the Board is not easy as, by law, “at least four of the governors shall be chosen solely based on their demonstrated ability in managing organizations or corporations (in either the public or private sector) that employ at least 50,000 employees.”
Democratic Control Of The PRC Also Unlikely Until 2022
The PRC is an independent regulator whose responsibilities include setting rates, promoting transparency, and adjudicating complaints. It has five commissioners, of whom no more than three can be from the same party.
As with USPS Governors, Commissioners are nominated by the President and must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The soonest Democratic control is likely is October 14, 2022, when two of the current Republican Commissioners’ terms expire.
Bipartisanship And Holistic Reform Is The Best Way Forward
By its nature, USPS is not a Democrat or Republican organization. There is not a Democrat or Republican way to deliver the mail, and a self-sustaining USPS is in the best interest of all Americans. In fact, President Trump’s now Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, testified to the U.S. Senate in July 2019 on behalf of Ashley Poling, a Democratic nominee for PRC Commissioner, before she was confirmed.
The Biden administration will be best served by using its political capital to lay the groundwork for holistic postal reform rather than unduly focusing on control of the USPS Board or Postal Regulatory Commission. This may include a bipartisan study commission, whose members may include Mark Meadows.
It is also highly unlikely that Postmaster General DeJoy, a successful logistics executive and one-time large fundraiser for President Trump and the Republican Party, is going to step down soon. DeJoy has been brutalized in the press since he became Postmaster General less than five months ago. Yet he has maintained an upbeat attitude and determination to turn around the agency. The organization’s success in delivering election mail on time has likely added to this determination.
All but unnoticed in the controversies surrounding DeJoy is that he supports many reform provisions typically championed by Democrats’ including continued six-day mail delivery, elimination of the Retiree Health Benefits prefunding requirement, integrating USPS retiree health benefits into Medicare, and expanding instead of contracting USPS.
For these and other practical reasons, conciliation trumps combat when it comes to how the new administration should work with the Postal Service.
About the Author: Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.
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