I’m hearing it from Vermonters every day, and with increasing urgency. From Bennington to South Newfane, to South Burlington, to Newport, to Windsor, to West Dover: People from all walks of life are rightly concerned about the threats to the mail service that we used to take for granted — the best mail service in the world — and we should be able to take it for granted.
What Vermonters are experiencing is deeply troubling: The urgent medical message to a Vermonter from her cardiologist that was delayed. A late credit card bill arriving right up to the due date. A disabled combat vet who relies on his prescription medicines for his health, and isn’t able to get them when he needs them.
All over the country today, millions of Americans are having to stay at home to keep each other safe. They know the stakes. They stay home for their grandparents and their neighbors. Amid all this sacrifice, the hardworking men and women of the U.S. Postal Service have been as essential as never before to keep us connected. And postal inspectors work diligently to protect Americans from mail fraud.
This is doubly so in rural states like ours. Small business owners wearing masks and gloves package up shipments for customers near and far. Seniors, veterans and many others are receiving their medications through the mail. Retirees await the Social Security checks that keep them out of poverty. Timing is crucial for the Vermonters who raise chickens for eggs, relying on careful delivery by USPS. As the first day of school approaches, parents are ordering school supplies to their front door. And with a national election fewer than 75 days away, voters are requesting their mail-in ballots in record numbers.
Vermonters, whether living in downtown Winooski or in little Island Pond, know we could not survive without the USPS. Many small businesses would fail, faced with shipping expenses that would chew up their profits. Consumers would see wildly different shipping costs based on their addresses. Older Americans, people with disabilities and folks who don’t drive or live far from a pharmacy, would not have access to life-saving medications. And millions of Americans would not be able to participate in our most basic civic responsibility if deprived of their right to vote by mail.
Certain politicians who seek to undermine the USPS have long tried to convince us it was little more than a bad business bargain, and these efforts have escalated now that we need the USPS more than ever. But the U.S. Postal Service is exactly that: a service, just as the Weather Service and the U.S. Army provide essential services — a service so essential that it is directly written into our Constitution. It provides the same services to Americans in public housing and penthouses, apartments in Boston, and houses on dirt roads in Underhill, Vermont. They deliver by boat to addresses that can only be reached by water. They deliver over ice roads above the Arctic Circle. They deliver mail on the backs of mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When politicians destroy the USPS for their financial or political self-interests, Americans in every corner of our country are affected. And rural communities are among the first to suffer.
Efforts to privatize the USPS have been going on for years. In 2006, Congress was working on the first bipartisan law to recapitalize USPS and put it on firm financial ground in more than 30 years. President Bush insisted the USPS must fund the retirement health care of its employees, 75 years into the future at a cost of $72 billion. No other federal agency or private corporation has been saddled with such an experiment, and none could survive such a crippling blow. Without this expense, USPS would have reported operating profits for years and had the flexibility to make now critical infrastructure investments. Even with pre-fund now suspended, its damage still continues. And during this pandemic, the Postal Service faces financial stresses similar to those that other revenue operations are facing.
This president has not joined with Congress in recognizing and addressing these stresses. In May, the Postal Board appointed a political fundraiser and businessman, Louis DeJoy, to be the postmaster general. A brand-new title was even added for him: CEO. Mr. DeJoy and his wife own millions of dollars in assets in USPS competitors like UPS. Since taking office, Mr. DeJoy has taken drastic measures, in the name of reducing costs, but has done nothing to improve the services Americans everywhere rely on. Employees have been told that no overtime will be approved, and packages should sit on the truck when the people who depend on their timely delivery are just down the road. President Trump’s new CEO is running the USPS as Trump has run so many of his own businesses: into the ground. If he succeeds in destroying the USPS that so many Americans rely on, he will benefit financially as competitors scoop up the remains.
And it should surprise no one that President Trump, so close to another election, is trying to undermine our mail service as another way to make it harder to vote. Polling places across the country have been closed, mostly in minority communities, where people rely on public transportation or their own feet to get to the polls. If folks cannot vote by mail, at a time when it is the safest, most secure, most accessible option, how can we ensure a fair and free election? President Trump wants to ensnare us in a catch-22. He’s told us we can’t trust voting by mail. Now he’s destroying the USPS so he can point to its failure as proof that we can’t trust it. If he succeeds in creating chaos on Nov. 3, he will no doubt baselessly call it “voter fraud.”
We must not allow this to happen. The House has called Mr. DeJoy to an emergency oversight hearing, and the Senate is following suit, where he needs to answer critical questions. Hearings are important in seeking accountability from federal officials. But even more urgently, we must fund the USPS amid this pandemic and protect it from privatization. The House-passed bill to do that has been buried on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk for nearly four months. And we must ensure every voter, no matter who they are or where they live, is able to participate in the election this November. People’s lives are at stake. And so is our democracy.
Patrick Leahy is Vermont’s senior U.S. Senator. The Middlesex resident is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.