PMG Louis DeJoy’s Fix for the Post Office, Mark Jamison, Save The Post Office, Aug. 29, 2020
After years of being a journalistic backwater the Postal Service is all over the news. From the usual contextually vacant reports about financial losses, we shifted to meaty and sometimes sensational coverage about the removal of Blue collections boxes and mail processing equipment at plants. There’s also the entrance of a new villain on the scene, Louis DeJoy, a wealthy Trump and Republican contributor with business interests and investments that coincide with the Postal Service.
Mr. DeJoy began his tenure as Postmaster General in June of this year after being named to the post by the Postal Board of Governors, which oversees postal operations. The Board is populated by a former RNC chair, a couple of investment bankers, the CEO of a public affairs and corporate advocacy consultancy, and a former CEO of various logistics and transportation companies that also specialized in mail consolidation, a form of outsourcing of mail processing.
Mr. DeJoy’s first couple of months have been eventful to say the least. His comments to the BOG at his first open session of the board on August 7th make clear that his intentions are to transform the Postal Service. Early in his remarks he says, “We are at the beginning of a transformative process. Our goal is to change and improve the Postal Service to better serve the American public, and I am excited about the opportunities ahead.” He proceeds to offer the usual professions of fealty to the ethic of service to the American, followed by the even more usual assertions about the dire straits the institution finds itself in.
Whatever he may say, it’s clear that Mr. DeJoy has entered the scene like a bull in a china shop. Within weeks of his taking office, there have been widespread reports of delays and service failures (which are backed up by internal USPS documents), news stories about Blue box removals, reports of mail processing equipment being removed, employee reports of mail left on docks or at carrier cases, and actions that seem to violate basic contractual provisions with the unions, causing the initiation of grievances as well as the breakdown of normal lines of communication between the APWU and L’Enfant Plaza. Mr. DeJoy seems to be moving full steam ahead at executing the expressed desires of the president for dismantling the USPS.
It’s fair to say that under DeJoy the Postal Service has lost any sense of urgency with respect to delivery of the mails. DeJoy seems to be taking his cue from the Wall Street manipulators who populate the BOG and hired DeJoy. He is in paring mode, sacrificing service and performance for operational reductions with questionable or at least unproven financial payoffs. This is especially damning during a pandemic and economic slowdown and certainly before an election, times when the postal network is more necessary and important than ever.
An article earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal suggests that DeJoy is actually doing the right things “to make the U.S. Postal Service’s operations more efficient,” but he may have picked the wrong time to get started on them.
But the problem is bigger than the timing. It’s always the wrong time for any plan that sacrifices service for “efficiency.” DeJoy’s plan is the wrong plan for saving the post office, and DeJoy is simply the wrong man for the job.
The heightened scrutiny from the press has caused citizen concern and outrage, followed by hearings in both the Senate and the House. The hearings generated a good deal of heat and some light. Representative Katie Porter got the new PMG to admit that he didn’t know the price to mail a post card, while Representative Stephen Lynch, a member with long experience on postal issues, engaged in some tough questioning of Mr. DeJoy. During the hearing in the Senate on August 21st, Mr. DeJoy seemed to back off on some of his early initiatives, agreeing to halt the removals of collection boxes and mail processing equipment, although in his subsequent appearance before the House on August 24th he seemed to dig in, refusing to agree to reconnect mail processing equipment.
In his opening statement to the Senate, Mr. DeJoy asserted that he has “been fully immersed in understanding and evaluating all aspects of the postal organization and business.” He must be a quick study since in the bit more than three months since his selection by the BOG and two months since coming on the job he has managed to not only immerse himself in the operations of a large and complex bureaucracy that provides service to 160 million addresses but he has done so during a pandemic when the institution is confronted by extraordinary challenges.
His short but obviously intense immersion enabled Mr. DeJoy to institute major operational changes that resulted in significant mail delays and raised questions about the Postal Service’s ability to perform essential mail processing during an election where more people than ever will vote by mail in order to avoid unnecessary exposure to a pandemic that has resulted in 175,000 deaths and left many with long term health deficits while also having devastating impacts on employment and the economy.
Much of the uproar over Mr. DeJoy’s moves has arisen because his moves have the appearance of being politically tainted. Mr. DeJoy has been a large contributor to Republican causes for a long time. He was not initially a supporter of the president but he and his wife, Aldona Wos, have long supported far Right ideologies that sought to dismantle government. Ms. Wos, currently Mr. Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Canada, served as North Carolina governor Pat McCrory’s director of Health and Human Services and in that role worked to privatize the state’s Medicaid system.
In the shorter term there are questions about how much contact Mr. DeJoy had with Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin prior to accepting his position at USPS. More troubling is the apparent involvement of Mnuchin has had with the Postal Service (here, here, and here). One of Title 39’s greatest flaws is management model it creates. Leaving the oversight of an important national asset to a remote board of governors is problematic, but the fact remains that that is what the law endows. The idea was to remove political interference and influence, but Mnuchin’s involvement combined with the president’s penchant for shooting factless tweets through his loosest of cannons is disconcerting.
President Trump’s obsession with conducting a W.C. Fields election: “If you can’t win fair, cheat” makes the actions of the Postmaster General and postal leadership suspect regardless of what impacts these actions may have on operational efficiency. The president doesn’t govern as much as manipulate. His modus operandi is to sow fear, confusion, and doubt. His Tweet on August 17 pretending to want to fix things by proclaiming “Save the Post Office” was a bit of gaslighting that exceeds the word shameless. Mr. DeJoy’s unwillingness to be transparent about what he’s up to only contributes to these fears.
DeJoy’s actions and reports of service failures may have had the opposite of their intended affect. Folks across the country rallied to oppose DeJoy’s changes. Television news was saturated with postal related stories with postal workers and postal experts appearing to discuss the impacts of the operational changes – heck I even appeared on Chuck Todd’s afternoon MSNBC show Meet the Press.
Congress has reacted too. Senators and representatives from both parties decried the situation. Nancy Pelosi called the House back into town to take up legislation that would roll back DeJoy’s changes and establish lines of accountability.
The immediate question becomes, for all the retreat and withdrawal on the part of DeJoy and the Postal Service and the president, what has been actually won? Stopping operational changes that offered little financial benefit and used critical resources during a pandemic is good. Bringing increased focus and scrutiny to the processing of election mail is an alloyed good, but we also need to make sure states have sufficient resources to handle additional mail ballots. The Heroes Act passed in May by the House included $3.5 billion for election assistance to the states and that money is critical – it can’t get lost in the celebration of the moment.
President Reagan was fond of saying, “Trust but verify” with respect to negotiations with the Soviets. At this point there really can be no trust of the current administration. We’ve seen time and again how the administration has advanced outrageous programs, for example family separation and childhood detention, and announced rollbacks after public outrage became overwhelming. In too many cases however the abuses continued or renewed in quieter ways once the spotlight was off.
There has been a dangerous decline in mail delivery performance. Restoring Blue Boxes and sorting equipment won’t reverse those declines. Many of the declines can be attributed to an institutional lack of urgency promoted by the PMG. Without eyes in every plant and carrier unit, we cannot be sure that every container gets on the last truck or every tray makes it out to the route. No matter what Mr. DeJoy says about using appropriate resources during the pandemic, we can’t be sure that extra trip or overtime will be approved.
Getting back to a 96% on time rate will be hard but let’s remember that 96% isn’t good enough for election mail. Is anyone willing to see 4% of the ballots miss their deadlines? States could help by making ballot acceptance based on postmark not delivery. The news media could help by reinforcing the simple fact that we may not have full counts on election nights in tight races. This doesn’t mean that there was fraud or shenanigans as the president would have us believes. It means that we are in the middle of a pandemic where safety is critical so mail votes will far exceed previous amounts – people shouldn’t have to chance their health to vote. It means we need to count every vote honestly and accurately. From the perspective of the Postal service it means that the only acceptable on time rate for election mail is 100% – that must be the standard.
Trust isn’t good enough and is in short supply. Verification is essential. Congress needs clear, strong, and specific language creating an oversight regimen for the Postal service that will be in place from now until at least January. They must require eyes in plants and delivery units as well as regular and thorough reporting from USPS officials. Most of all Mr. DeJoy must go and the current Board of Governors who oversaw these changes must stand down.
Most of all, Mr. DeJoy must go and the current Board of Governors who oversaw these changes must stand down.Congress can and must create an interim postal governing board that would be in place until full postal reform legislation can be taken up by the next Congress. An interim PMG must be selected whose credibility and integrity is beyond question. I would recommend former USPSOIG and BOG member David Williams if he’s willing to do it. During his tenure as OIG Mr. Williams repeatedly demonstrated himself to be an honest broker and a straight shooter. That’s what we need.
But when the current election is over, we can’t go back to the status quo ante in terms of postal reform. Too many people are willing to lay these problems solely at the current president’s doorstep, but the sad fact is that the problems we face have existed for years, through administrations of both parties. That’s largely the result of asking the wrong questions.
In Gravity’s Rainbow Thomas Pynchon wrote: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”
That may be the best description of reporting on postal issues for the last ten years. Instead of talking about what the postal network is, what it means, what benefits it offers as an essential infrastructure, the focus has been elsewhere. Like on the Postal Service’s supposedly out-of-control, unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities, which are mostly a matter of concocted accounting issues.
Mr. DeJoy and the new Board of Governors, like so many before them, believe that the only way the postal network is valuable and viable is if it pays for itself through revenues, as if it were merely a delivery business. They are wrong about that, just as they are wrong about what equality and “We the People” means and promises.
It’s good that the press is paying closer attention to postal issues. It speaks well of heightened citizen awareness and activity that the Postal Service rescinded collection box removals temporarily and that they will postpone further equipment removal until after the election.
Perhaps the most important thing is that all of us keep a cool head and retain perspective based on context and accurate facts. At the moment the story about collection boxes and equipment inventory at the Postal Service is a distraction, and they shouldn’t divert us from what is most important.
From its first days in office, this administration has engaged in gaslighting, outright lying, and just plain bullshit. In his essay On Bullshit, philosopher Harry Frankfurter describes the characteristics of someone who engages in the practice of bullshitting:
He is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
This describes to a tee what Mr. Trump and his minions and enablers are doing on a daily basis. By spreading disinformation and by taking provocative actions designed to heighten concern and even induce fear in the public, the administration causes folks to lose focus and in some cases chase their tails.
This administration engages in daily misdirection and disinformation. The response needs be outrage but also a clear focus on the most important issues.
At this point the Postal Service, with $12.9 billion in unrestricted cash as of June 30, 2020, has the funds it needs to ensure election mail is processed with urgency and accuracy. There is more than sufficient capacity to handle election mail, which amounts to a relatively small increase in the total piece count.
What is missing is a commitment by the part of Postal Service senior management to provide the necessary resources to make sure election mail is given the attention it deserves.
What is also missing is the political integrity in this administration to fulfill its responsibility to conduct a free and fair election. This is unacceptable and we and our representatives in Congress cannot and must not stand for it.
We must address postal reform, and hopefully it will be a priority of the next administration and hopefully it will focus on the Postal Service and the postal network as a national asset and an essential infrastructure.
Right now, at this moment our priority must be conducting a free, fair, and accessible election where everyone who wants to vote can vote and where every vote gets counted. In order to do that the resources of the Postal Service must be devoted to treating election mail with the highest priority and care, regardless of how it was mailed.
The Postal Board of Governors, Mr. DeJoy’s bosses, needs to state unequivocally that the Postal Service will step up and fulfill its obligations to the American people in the coming election. There can be no excuses, waffling, or diversions.
Delivering election mail preserves a sacred American right, and it is the duty and moral responsibility of those in charge of the Postal Service to stake their personal reputations on ensuring the people’s Postal Service fulfills its obligations fully and completely.
Mark Jamison, Retired Postmaster
Serves as an advisor and regular contributor to Save the Post Office. He can be contacted at email@example.com. His previous posts are here.