For the first time in generations, millions of Americans know the postmaster general’s name, and not because he is doing a good job. Shortly after taking over the USPS in June, Louis DeJoy made 57 changes, some of them sweeping in nature, that kneecapped the postal service without bothering to check what impact they would have. This came at a particularly bad time to make big changes, with the pandemic causing widespread staff shortages, a surge in labor-intensive package volumes, and an election that would be administered largely by mail looming.
DeJoy didn’t screw everything up—ultimately, the USPS generally performed well with election mail—but there’s no question that in his short time in charge of the USPS, he has made the organization worse. This is why a lot of people, including some elected officials, want DeJoy out.
Most prominently, Senator Tammy Duckworth called on President Biden to get not only DeJoy out, but also every member of the nine-member USPS Board of Governors who enabled him (that would, for the record, be all of them, as his appointment was unanimous and they have supported him through his entire tenure).
I spent almost six months reporting on nothing but the USPS for Motherboard’s The Mail project, a series that showed me the USPS had tremendous, deep-rooted problems long before DeJoy took office. Yes, he exacerbated those problems, but he did not create them, and firing him will not solve them without years of competent administration and Congressional reforms that go far beyond who hires and fires the postmaster general.
Forcing out the postmaster general is not a simple task. Congress or the president cannot simply fire DeJoy. That position is hired and fired by the USPS board of governors, a bipartisan position that presidents appoint, but Biden’s predecessors of both parties have long neglected. Currently, four of the nine seats on the board can be filled by Biden, some vacant and others still occupied by a holdover whose term has technically expired.
Prior to the USPS’s creation in 1970, the postmaster general was a cabinet appointment like any other, selected by the president and approved by the Senate. The whole point of creating the USPS and removing the postmaster general from the cabinet was to “depoliticize” the USPS, another way of saying Congress and the president didn’t want the post office to be their problem anymore.
Like many problems, this is a debt elected officials owe to their predecessors who wanted the USPS to be run more like a corporation and less like a government agency. The common refrain when this all happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that government, which did not have to compete in a marketplace, was inherently inefficient while private enterprise, which did have to compete, was efficient. Better, then, to have the post office compete in the marketplace and not make taxpayers foot the bill for its incompetence.
This was always more ideological than factual, but it resulted in the USPS we have today. In fact, DeJoy is the ultimate embodiment of this ethos—having come up not through the USPS ranks but imported from the private sector after running a profitable but controversial logistics business—and stands before us a shiny-headed monument to all of this ideology’s flaws. Today, the post office employs hundreds of thousands fewer people than it did in 1970, delivers orders of magnitude more mail to more places than it did then, and is still being lambasted as inefficient and wasteful. DeJoy was supposedly going to end that and bring private industry know-how to this lumbering beast of the past. So much for that.
It is perfectly reasonable to want DeJoy out because he has done a bad job running the USPS. To be clear, I also think DeJoy has demonstrated poor leadership abilities, an unwillingness to work with Congress, and a lack of compassion for U.S. residents who have suffered due to his policies. Simply put, he doesn’t seem to give a shit about the things the postmaster general ought to. He’s a bad fit. These are all good reasons for DeJoy to be ousted. But, it’s important to note that the postmaster general who most embodies the ethos of the modern USPS is also the worst fit for the job. There’s a larger mismatch here.
Which is why firing DeJoy is a bit like shooting the messenger. Sure, if the messenger is days late, it’s fair to punish the messenger for being bad at his job. But DeJoy, through action and deed, is here to show us that not only is the message late, but also wrong. It turns out, delivering mail to every address in the country six days a week is an inherently labor-intensive task. There is an unfair expectation that this public good pays for itself and a larger trade-off between labor-hour efficiency metrics and quality of life for those workers.
Firing DeJoy, and even all the Board of Governors, would do little to solve the underlying problems at the USPS. First and foremost, the USPS is struggling to work for the people of the United States for the same reason so many aspects of American life are not working: because Congress has completely abdicated its duty to pass laws that fix problems.
Elected officials have few legal avenues to pursue to force DeJoy out because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The whole point of the USPS—as opposed to its predecessor prior to 1970, the United State Post Office Department—was to be revenue-neutral, run like a business, and free from Congressional interference. Instead, we’ve ended up with a Congress that interferes to make the USPS financially unhealthy and abdicates any and all responsibility when we need new laws to heal it.
One of the only times since the creation of the USPS that Congress deemed it necessary to stick its neck into the USPS’s business resulted in one of the worst provisions ever passed into American law that saddled the post office with tens of billions of dollars of unnecessary, artificial debt Congress made up out of whole cloth in order to balance the budget after discovering the USPS had accidentally overpaid into a government pension account for decades. It is the primary—some argue sole—cause of the USPS’s terrible financials, something Congress has long known but declined to correct.
There are many possible routes to improving the USPS. Some necessary but insufficient conditions: to excuse the USPS’s unpaid debt created under the 2006 law, have Congress appropriate funds to pay for new electric delivery trucks, rescind the restriction that prevents the USPS from entering new lines of business such as postal banking, and resist further privatization (for more reform points, see Save the Post Office’s reform agenda). None of this will happen by firing Louis DeJoy or the USPS board, because none of those people created these problems. If our elected officials want to live in a society with accountability for those who desecrate a vital public service, then there is only one way forward: stop blaming others and get to work.
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