In a race where many candidates for president are pressing flashy, headline-grabbing issues like immigration, the fight against terrorism, abortion rights and education, Bernie Sanders is offering a passionate defense of the prosaic.
His message of economic populism and the ills of inequality includes a pledge to save the mail carrier’s door-to-door visit to every home, six days a week — a ritual in American life that’s increasingly viewed as quaint, outdated and unsustainable.
Sanders’s crusade to save the struggling U.S. Postal Service from extinction, which long predates his campaign for the Democratic nomination, is a powerful emblem of what he says can work in government as he fights against big banks, for a higher minimum wage and for more taxes on wealthy households and corporations.
“It’s the most visible symbol of government, every day,” says Warren Gunnels, Sanders’s policy director. “He strongly supports postal jobs, but overall he wants to maintain and improve the quality of service that has improved the lives of the American people for more than 200 years.”
The rise of e-mail and the Internet, along with a congressional mandate that forces the post office to pay $5.5 billion a year to pre-fund the health benefits of future retirees, are threatening the survival of the institution. Since 2007, it has been unable to cover its annual budget, 80 percent of which goes to labor costs. The losses have been staggering.
Package delivery has helped gain back some ground. But postal officials have shrunk the workforce by hundreds of thousands of employees and proposed steep service cuts that include closing post offices, mail-sorting plants and eliminating Saturday delivery.
The senator from Vermont has decried those cuts and, buoyed by the politically potent postal unions, led the charge in the Senate to forestall some of them.
He doesn’t sit on any committees that oversee postal affairs. But Sanders has proposed legislation in the last two congresses to waive the prepayments for retirees. He’s pushing for the post office to be able to offer Americans basic financial services to raise revenue. He’s fought big delays to mail delivery as plants have closed.
He’s even blocked a slate of nominees to the agency’s governing board because he believes they would slash jobs and outsource one of America’s oldest institutions to private companies.
The morning after he debated his Democratic rivals for president in Las Vegas in October, Sanders gave a standing-room-only address at the Bally’s Hotel to 2,000 postal workers.
“The beauty of the Postal Service is that it provides universal service six days a week to every corner of America, no matter how small or how remote,” he told the American Postal Workers Union’s all-craft meeting, which was held in Las Vegas. “It supports millions of jobs in virtually every sector of our economy. It provides decent-paying union jobs to some 500,000 Americans, and it is the largest employer of veterans.”
Then he railed against the “constant and vicious attack” on the post office by the likes of the Koch brothers and other billionaires who want to privatize entitlement programs and other institutions.
From his Senate perch representing a rural state, Sanders has found allies among rural Republicans in Congress whose constituents, some low-income, some elderly, also depend on the mail.
The lawmakers’ chief concern now is that after three years of plant closures, first-class mail delivery has slowed significantly, particularly in rural areas where postal trucks must now drive long distances to get the mail from home to sorting.
“Sanders sees the post office as a culturally democratizing force in America,” says Jim Sauber, an economist and chief of staff for the National Association of Letter Carriers. “It fits right in with his democratic socialism. He stood up for the postal service when other people just assumed, ‘The Internet is killing the post office, let’s just dismantle it.'”
Sanders’s defense of postal issues is also economic. The Postal Service is the country’s second-largest civilian employer after Wal-Mart, moving 158 billion plus pieces of mail a year with a tiny amount of funding from Congress.
On the campaign trail, he’s calling for an expansion of what the post office does to include basic financial services like banking as an alternative to a predatory lending industry for low-income people. He also wants the Postal Service be permitted to set up Internet cafes, notarize documents, issue licenses and other stuff.
All of these changes would need approval from Congress, which has failed in the last three sessions to pass any legislation to stabilize postal finances, let alone expand the agency’s mandate.
“From a democratic socialist perspective, Sanders has come at the question of postal issues legitimately,” says Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, the country’s largest group of commercial mailers.
“The goals are laudable,” Del Polito said. “But the mail doesn’t hold the place it once held in society. How are we going to pay for it without cuts?”
After the Postal Service inspector general reported this year that the agency’s relaxed mail delivery standards are severely degrading service, Sanders wrote to the postmaster general, urging her to reinstate faster standards and stop its planned closing of dozens more mail processing plants.
He spearheaded a non-binding “sense of the Senate” resolution to restore the standards, which passed 85 to 11. Under similar pressure from House lawmakers, Postmaster General Megan Brennan agreed this summer to halt future plant closures.
One of the the senator’s most gutsy acts has gotten little notice: His two-year hold on two of President Obama’s slate of nominees to the postal Board of Governors.
The board doesn’t have high visibility outside the postal world, but it approves high-dollar capital investments, sets mail prices, long-term strategies and legislative policies and signs union contracts. One nominee, James Miller III, advocated to privatize the Postal Service when he led the Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan administration. The other, Mickey Barnett, is a lobbyist for the payday loan industry. The candidates are anathema to the postal unions, which urged Sanders to block them.
Because of the hold, Congress has not voted on Miller, Barnett and three other nominees to fill expiring terms. As of December, the board will be left with one member and no quorum when two of the last remaining members’ terms expire.
Gunnels notes that any senator has a right to block a nominee.
“No board is better than a bad board,” he said. “Senator Sanders doesn’t believe we should have a board that supports dismantling and privatizing the Postal Service.”