By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
[The Congress shall have power to t]o establish post offices and post roads
For most of the first century of American independence, the Post Office was by far the largest and most important organization within the federal government. Congress has the power to set up Post Offices and to build roads connecting them
James Madison explains the design behind this powerful grant of authority in Federalist 42:
The powers included in the THIRD class [of powers lodged in the general government] are those which provide for the harmony and proper intercourse among the States, [e.g.] to . The defect of power in the existing Confederacy to regulate the commerce between its several members, is in the number of those which have been clearly pointed out by experience.
…A very material object of this power was the relief of the States which import and export through other States, from the improper contributions levied on them by the latter. Were these at liberty to regulate the trade between State and State, it must be foreseen that ways would be found out to load the articles of import and export, during the passage through their jurisdiction, with duties which would fall on the makers of the latter and the consumers of the former. We may be assured by past experience, that such a practice would be introduced by future contrivances; and both by that and a common knowledge of human affairs, that it would nourish unceasing animosities, and not improbably terminate in serious interruptions of the public tranquillity.
An originalist might note that neither the Framers nor Madison have any notion that the United States Post Office (USPS) might require a “business model” or seek to make a profit; the intent is to promote “harmony and proper intercourse among the States” by preventing states from charging each other rents (“levies”) in the manner of robber barons. This goal is expressed by the Universal Service Obligation (USO), described by the United States Post Office in 2018 as follows:
The mission of the U.S. Postal Service is to provide the American public with trusted, affordable, universal service. Congress and the President set forth this mission by recognizing the Postal Service’s critical role in commerce and in binding the nation together. While not explicitly defined, the Postal Service’s universal service obligation (USO) is broadly outlined in multiple statutes and encompasses multiple dimensions: geographic scope, range of products, access to services and facilities, delivery frequency, affordable and uniform pricing, service quality, and security of the mail. While other carriers might offer delivery on a universal basis, the Postal Service is the only carrier obligated to provide all aspects of universal service at affordable prices. To ensure funding of the USO, Congress and the President established the Private Express Statutes (PES) and the mailbox access rule, which together comprise the postal monopoly.
Of course, most requirements can be specified and implemented in multiple ways; in 2014 the USPS Office of the Inspector General wrote that “the Postal Service’s USO is long overdue for updating and clarification.” One such “update” would be privatizing the Post Office, once a bipartisan project, now (given Trump) less so. That project is a fine example of the neoliberal playbook; Jim Hightower gives the ugly details here. Unexpectedly, and happily, the project is stalled.
USPS Privatization is Currently Stalled
There are two key documents. The first is the administration’s plan to reorganize the Federal Government: “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations” (for clarity, I’ve edited out the talking points from the neoliberal playbook; primarily the pension obligations scam). From the Recommendations:
USPS has extremely high fixed costs as a result of relatively generous employee benefits combined with a universal service obligation that is understood to require mail carriers to visit over 150 million addresses six days per week…. A new model that adequately finances USPS while meeting the needs of rural and urban communities, large mailers, and small businesses is needed… This proposal would restructure USPS by aligning revenues and expenses to restore a sustainable business model and possibly prepare it for future conversion from a Government agency into a privately-held corporation…. USPS privatization through an initial public offering (IPO) or sale to another entity would require the implementation of significant reforms prior to sale to show a possible path to profitability… To address these major issues and identify solutions, possibly including private ownership, the President has issued Executive Order 13829: Task Force on the United States Postal System. The Task Force will conduct a thorough evaluation of the operations and finances of the Postal Service and make recommendations for reform consistent with this reorganization proposal…
Two key points. First, the adminstration proposes a two-step process: Restructuring, followed by sale. Second, a Task Force will be established, and the Task Force will deliver a report by August 10, 2018.
The Task Force report is the second key document, but as of November 26, 2018, it has not yet appeared. (This has happily has not prevented postal workers unions from organizing rallies against privatization, or making large ad buys.) Here is a rough timeline:
August 8, 2018: Trump’s Postal Task Force Has Recommendations Ready for the President (Government Executive):
Trump tapped Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Office of Personnel Management Director Jeff Pon and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to head up the task force, but their staffers have led the charge. The group held meetings over the summer with an array of stakeholders, industry groups and employee representatives.
While the report is completed and expected at the White House by Friday’s deadline, multiple individuals engaged in discussions with the task force told Government Executive the administration will not make it public immediately. The report is already being circulated within the administration, those individuals said, but the White House will not widely release it for at least a couple of weeks.
The task force is by all accounts playing its cards very close to the vest, with no details of its proposals making their way out to the groups it met with over the last few months.
August 30, 2018 White House Expected to Keep Postal Task Force Report Secret Until After Midterms (Government Executive):
The Trump administration is planning to keep secret until after the mid-term elections a report delivered to the president earlier this month with suggestions for reforming the U.S. Postal Service, according to individuals with knowledge of the plan.
August 31, 2018: Senate Hearing on USPS Task Force Report Postponed (Multichannel Merchant):
The report was delivered to President Trump on Aug. 10… The Sept. 5 hearing was to be before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. No new date has been set, pushing out any potential legislative action indefinitely.
September 26, 2018: Task force’s recommendations to Trump remain a mystery (Linn’s Stamp News):
[T]he planned Aug. 10 release of the study of USPS’ finances has passed without any disclosure of what the presidential task force recommended to Trump.
That silence has led to several public predictions that the panel’s proposals will “never see the light of day.”
Two of the largest mailing organizations, the Association for Postal Commerce (PostCom) and the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, were telling its members just that in August.
On Sept. 13, the DC Velocity website, which covers transportation issues, echoed that sentiment.
It said that the “Trump administration has shelved the release” of the postal report, citing unnamed “people familiar with the matter.”
Trump has been briefed on the panel’s recommendations, Velocity said, and was unhappy with its findings.
Michael Plunkett, president of PostCom, said the Velocity account is “consistent with what I have been told.”
Stephen Kearney, executive director of the nonprofit mailers, said, “I’m still assuming it will be released by the end of the year because a Treasury spokesperson said so.”
Why Is USPS Privatization Stalled?
It would be irresponsible not to speculate! I can think of a few reasons:
(1) The rural vote. As is well-known, rural voters break heavily for Trump. Trump may not wish to alienate them by killing off one of their few community centers remaining after deindustrialization, which Post Office reforms focused on “fixed costs” often try to do. At least not until after 2020.
(2) Trump’s beef with Amazon. Reuters:
A Senate hearing about reforming the U.S. Postal Service that could have scrutinized what Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) and others pay for package delivery has been delayed, three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters, moving back President Donald Trump’s effort to hike the world’s largest online retailer’s rates.
(This is the August 31, 2018 hearing mentioned above.)
Trump has repeatedly attacked Amazon on Twitter for treating the Postal Service as its “delivery boy” by paying less than it should for deliveries and contributing to the service’s $65 billion loss since the global financial crisis of 2007-2009, without presenting evidence [Vox: “Maybe Trump is somewhat right].
Trump’s attacks on Amazon have gone hand-in-hand with attacks on its founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, who privately owns the Washington Post, which has published several articles critical of Trump’s campaign and presidency.
Trump has described the newspaper as Amazon’s “chief lobbyist.” The Washington Post’s top editor has said Bezos has no involvement in its news coverage [no doubt!].
If Bezos and Trump have their squillionaire horns locked in some way, it makes sense that the Task Force recommendations would stall.
(3) The spoils have not yet been divided. Nobody talks about Post Office real estate, which seems odd to me, since they have rather a lot of it. HuffPo:
But it also owns 8,621 properties (totaling about 318 million square feet of interior space), and about 500 acres of vacant land.
Most of that owned real estate is prime, downtown real estate in every town and city in America — the main Post Office and the neighborhood branches in cities, suburban branches, and big operations centers. The land is scattered all over the country, but pretty much none of it is in wilderness areas.
How much is it worth? Nobody really knows. The USPS, like every government entity, doesn’t regularly appraise its properties. But there is an estimate nosed about by the Right; the [Scaife-funded Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation (IRET)] reported in a 2003 paper that the USPS carried its properties on its books at $15 billion, and that in 1999, it reported that properties it sold went for about seven times book value.
So by the Right Wing’s estimates, the owned USPS property portfolio is worth about $105 billion.
$105 billion! That’s real money! Interestingly, the USPS recently replaced its old real estate broker — CBRE, whose chair, Richard Blum, is DiFi’s husband, how cozy — with Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). “In 2017 JLL was named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies by the Ethisphere Institute for the tenth consecutive year. So perhaps the USPS is clearing the decks for some reason. In any case, Trump used to be in real estate. So perhaps he has strong… views on how the swag should be divvied up.
Anyhow, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head; readers may wish to speculate further. Note, however, that these considerations — which are not mutually exclusive — could also be complicated by the two-stage structure imposed by the Task Force. Especially for real estate: Which tasks are to be allocated to the first phase, restructuring, and which to the second phase, post-sale?
The administration being what it is, the Task Force recommendations could be released any day, and the privatization goons would spring into action, making my speculations obsolete. But until that day comes, I’ll take the win, temporary though it may be. Oh, and why not purge our thinking of neoliberal clap-trap, and bring the purpose of the Post Office back to the original, harmonious intent of the Framers?
 I linked to a Google search because doesn’t seem to be an aggregation of the rallies. The last aggregation I can find is at Labor Notes, from 2011.
 The Trump administration is often depicted as chaotic and out of control, as in many cases it is. However, in some cases — trade, and nominating judges — the administration has proven to be both competent and disciplined; it’s foolish to underestimate them. The Task Force looks to me like one of these cases. Conducting a Task Force, producing a report, briefing the President, and then burying the report, all without any leaks, is not an easy thing to do in Washington, but the administration seems to have pulled it off.