A Brief History Of Political Interference In The U.S. Postal Service NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks to Winifred Gallagher, author of How the Post Office Created America, about political interference in the U.S. Postal Service.

A Brief History Of Political Interference In The U.S. Postal Service

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/902977021/902977022" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The U.S. Postal Service is hemorrhaging money, and the Trump administration has suggested it won't bail it out. Speaking yesterday, President Trump blamed Democrats for the Postal Service's financial problems, saying they aren't approving funding for mail-in voting. The Biden campaign is calling the administration's moves sabotage, saying it is an attempt to gut an institution that is an essential part of American life and to thwart the demand for mail-in ballots before an election. But political interference in the U.S. Postal Service isn't new, says our next guest. Winifred Gallagher is the author of "How The Post Office Created America," and she joins us now.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: So before we get to what is happening now, I want to start with history. The roots of the post office actually go back to when the U.S. was 13 colonies.

GALLAGHER: Yeah, even before the Declaration of Independence. The post office has really been woven into America's DNA since Benjamin Franklin. He was our first postmaster general and our founding father. In the 1760s and '70s, the American patriots created these underground postal networks that enabled them to conspire, talk treason under the British radar.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've called the Postal Service our democracy's unifier and equalizer. How did it become America's favorite government service?

GALLAGHER: I would date it to 1792. That's when our post office became truly unique. George Washington, Benjamin Rush and James Madison decided to use the postal network to create an informed electorate. This was, like, very radical. The Europeans were horrified. These founders devised this kind of Robin Hood scheme that used the high cost of postage to send letters to subsidize the cost of mailing cheap, uncensored newspapers to every citizen so that they could understand public affairs before they cast their votes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But after that, politicians used the post office for their own ends. How so?

GALLAGHER: Actually, they didn't interfere with postal operations very much until Andrew Jackson became president. He created what is called the spoils system. So he made the postmaster general a very powerful Cabinet officers and installed his political cronies in that position. And for nearly a century and a half, this spoils system allowed whichever party won the White House to reward its supporters with tens of thousands of jobs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there is a lot of concern over the financial trouble the post office is in. But this, you know, predates this administration. Briefly walk us through how we got to this moment.

GALLAGHER: Yeah. I would date it to the - the current crisis to the 1980s, when a very timid USPS management and Congress fatefully decided not to shift from letter mail to email. They could've given Americans digital addresses the same way they gave us our physical street addresses. And in fact, of course, as everyone knows, by 2001, email had drastically reduced the volume of first-class letter mail.

And then that crisis was worsened further by the really disastrous Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which restricted the Postal Service's ability to offer new services or adjust its pricing to its cost, and worse, required it to prefund its retiree health care benefits decades into the future, which created billions of dollars of debt. And that is what has prevented the post office from turning a profit for the past six years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's talk about what the Trump administration has now done. Louis DeJoy has been appointed as the postmaster general. He is a North Carolina businessman and a major Trump donor who reportedly has financial interests and competitors to the post office. And he stepped in, and he's cut the overtime of hundreds of thousands of employees. He said he would hold mail if it can't be sorted. This is purportedly to cut costs. Do you see it that way?

GALLAGHER: No, not at all. And it also, of course, reminds me of his favorite president - is Andrew Jackson. And that's the guy who invented the spoils system and made the postmaster general his political crony. Congress has to accept its responsibility and restore the USPS to health with these very commonsense reforms, including forgiving the huge debt for the retiree health care benefits, and also allow it to raise its prices very modestly. These are just things that the Congress has to do to, you know, preserve the system at this time of incredible partisanship and fragmentation. We have this one big, unifying national delivery system, and we need it to continue to support our democracy and free speech in ways that, you know, Benjamin Franklin couldn't even have imagined - delivering medicines and test kits during a COVID epidemic, but especially voting by mail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Winifred Gallagher is the author of "How The Post Office Created America: A History."

Thank you very much.

GALLAGHER: Thank you.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.