Opportunism or Reckless Indifference?

A few legal definitions:

• Reckless endangerment is “behaving indifferently to the consequences [of an action or inaction] in such a way as to create a substantial risk of serious physical injury or death to another person.”

• Negligent homicide, a more serious crime, is defined as “a criminal charge brought against people who, through criminal negligence, allow others to die.”

• In turn, “criminal negligence is a ‘misfeasance’ or ‘nonfeasance,’ where the fault lies in the failure to foresee and so allow otherwise avoidable dangers to manifest.”

Unfortunately, the statutes employing these definitions apply to people, not institutions. If they did, it might be interesting if an adventurous prosecutor brought charges against Congress under one of them for its failure to take timely and meaningful action to end the Postal Service’s slow spiral to financial collapse.

No-one yet everyone

It’s the nature of politicians to step forward when there’s credit to be shared but hide in the crowd when there’s blame. Individual members of Congress attach themselves to popular measures, successful efforts, and favorable opinions, but skulk away when there’s unpopularity, failure, or disfavor.

They use the pronoun “I” and “they” as politically appropriate: “I” proposed this important measure, but “they” failed to support it. They wouldn’t say “I” opposed this popular idea but “they” passed it anyway.

 

By hiding in the crowd, of course, none of the 535 occupants of Congress can be held accountable for failures to act, despite their “oversight” duty to identify looming problems and to take timely and effective action. As if by tacit agreement, our senators and representatives all rely on collective absolution – attributing failure to the collective rather than themselves. Somehow, none of the 535 is responsible at the same time as all of them are.

The USPS

The specific issue relevant to the commercial mailing industry and its clients is Congress’ negligence toward the Postal Service. Though the agency was moved out of Congress’ direct control in 1970, and given an updated charter in 2006, individual politicians have consistently exercised their “oversight” authority to meddle in postal operations, badger it about gripes from constituents and pet peeves, and lecture postal executives about how they should manage the USPS.

More immediately, Congress – including the members having direct oversight responsibility for the Postal Service because of their committee assignments – have watched as the agency’s finances have become ever less stable, and have done nothing to help.

The best example of fiduciary irresponsibility was late last month when Congress failed to give the USPS any direct aid (while handing out over $2 trillion elsewhere), instead simply allowing it to go more deeply in debt than it already is.

If the overseers of any publicly-traded company failed to correct serious financial declines, and instead simply approved more borrowing, stockholders would have reason to revolt.

Of course, the USPS isn’t a public company, and isn’t even a real business. It’s an independent agency within the executive branch of the federal government. Unlike other such agencies, however, the Postal Service is expected to be operated in a business-like manner – while providing public services that a business likely wouldn’t offer. Moreover, while other agencies get funding from the federal budget, the USPS is supposed to be self-sustaining, supported exclusively by the payments (postage) of users.

In recent years, the cost of executing the Postal Service’s essential service mandate to mail users and recipients (e.g., the Universal Service Obligation) has increased while the revenues it receives from the senders of mail have not. Making matters worse, Congress has imposed added financial burdens – prefunding future retiree pension and health costs, for example – further distancing income and expenses.

Politics

It’s important to note at this point that what may seem fairly straightforward to most people isn’t necessarily so inside the Beltway where facts – normally thought to be empirical – are much more pliable depending on their presenter. Moreover, what’s essential or unimportant also varies based on what the speaker hopes to accomplish by adjusting the emphasis.

An example would be the ongoing cries for action to help the Postal Service survive. The agency’s debt, and its diverging lines of income and expense, have been presented by USPS executives regularly for years. As long as the Postal Service kept chugging along, though, not causing any voters or political influencers to be too agitated, politicians let it be or, more accurately, ignored its ongoing problems because fixing them offered no political benefit for all the work (and risk) that would be required.

 

When the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hit businesses and mail volume dropped, the USPS rightly increased its warnings about a financial outlook that was quickly going from bad to really really bad. However, rather than being viewed and addressed reasonably, the agency’s circumstances were readily identified as a prime occasion for political opportunism.

The postal unions, less concerned about the Postal Service as an institution than as the ultimate source of their members’ dues, spun the Postal Service’s financial condition into a call for action to preserve union jobs. Then as would be expected, their political allies on the Hill sprang into action, duly parroting whatever the unions claimed, and calling for immediate action to buoy postal finances and save the USPS.

(Bear in mind that these same politicians, including those in leadership positions, have been sitting on their hands for years as the USPS sank into a sea of red ink. The difference is that now an opportunity for both publicity and scoring points with their union supporters has made taking up the USPS banner politically worthwhile.)

Soon, the same representatives who’d done nothing for years were making doomsday statements about the Postal Service and proposing multi-billion dollar assistance. News outlets, too lazy to look further, repeated the politicians’ declarations, and obtained harmonizing quotes from postal union executives. At the same time, the daily risks of postal workers became a cause célèbre for politicians who suddenly cared about them and wanted to be seen as their friends.

In less than a month, the Postal Service’s crumbling financial circumstances – that had been ignored for years – were transformed into a major national problem requiring immediate action; members of Congress had discovered the opportunity it offered to serve their own political self-interest.

Captivity

As anyone familiar with the operations and functioning of the USPS knows, the fundamental conflicts inherent in the Postal Service’s charter – to be a service run like a business – and the worsening gap between the costs of its obligations and the revenue it derives, is not really new. Rather, it’s been occurring in the full view and, presumably, with the full knowledge of Congress – all 535 members and their staffs. Yet, without a seeming emergency at hand, no action had been taken to either revise the agency’s charter or to rationalize the conflicts of its practical implications.

 

Being a captive of Congress, of course, there’s no higher authority to compel action to help the Postal Service. Yes, voters are the ultimate authority, but few if any are informed about the relatively obscure issues related to the USPS and its finances, few if any urge action from their members of Congress on postal issues, and virtually no-one makes a ballot choice based on a candidate’s position on postal solvency. This circumstance essentially allows our 535 legislators to do what they wish, or not, exercising their political will within their crowd of unaccountability.

Simply put, the Postal Service is a captive of politicians who are often inattentive to its interests, usually uninformed about its condition, and thus negligent in doing what needs to be done to assure its financial and operational stability.

And – until political opportunity knocks – they know they can stay that way because no-one (i.e., the electorate) is going to call them for their irresponsibility.

(Unfortunately, the foregoing paragraph may well apply to many other components of the federal government that also have been left to stumble along without adequate support, but under persistent demands from politicians.)

The “benefit” of the COVID-19 situation, as noted, is that now there’s both a crisis to identify and a politically useful reason to act responsively. Any such action should not be seen, however, as an objective and thoughtful reaction – objective and thoughtful action has been ignored for years. Rather, now any action advocated to help the USPS is a political opportunity to take credit (“I filed the bill to save the USPS!”) or blame opponents (“They failed to support the USPS!”).

Ultimately, scoring political points is the objective; helping the USPS, or not, is only a side result. The interests of ratepayers and commercial mail producers aren’t in the picture.

Charges

As noted, negligence is the failure to foresee or observe and take timely corrective action to avert a harmful result. It wouldn’t take much effort to prove Congress’ negligence, or reckless indifference, toward the USPS. Though the agency continues to survive (while sinking deeper in debt), the impact of the current business downturn on mail volume and revenue hasn’t revealed anything new, simply made the existing situation more starkly apparent.

Will Congress act – doing more than just allowing the Postal Service to go deeper in debt? Will it display unprecedented responsibility and take effective, meaningful action, or simply play it as a political opportunity? If history is any guide, the negligence likely will continue, allowing the 535 members of Congress to again favor their own self-interest and disavow any individual accountability for a collective failure to act.


 

This commentary was recently published in the April 13, 2020 edition of Mailers Hub News. This issue and more can be found in the Mailers Hub News Archives. (Archive access is a Mailers Hub subscriber-only benefit.)

 

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