John Oliver took a break from focusing on the coronavirus pandemic on “Last Week Tonight” to instead take a deep dive into the complex situation surrounding the post office.
The United States Postal Service (USPS), Oliver explained on Sunday’s episode, has been a “Republican punching bag” for years. Critics frequently cite it as a hallmark of government inefficiency due to its massive debt, currently estimated at $160.9 billion, he said.
But as Oliver pointed out, much of that debt was due to the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA). The bill, which passed with bipartisan support, forced the USPS to prepay health and retirement benefits for every current and future employee for 50 years, a burden placed on very few government agencies, much less private companies. From 2004 to 2006, the USPS made $6 billion in profits. By the end of 2019, it was $160.9 billion in debt, with $119.3 billion due to retiree benefits, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Why is the USPS in the spotlight now? In April, President Donald Trump said he would veto any coronavirus relief bill that included funds for the USPS, calling the organization “a joke” and saying it needed to raise its package rates by 400 percent. Administration sources told The Washington Post that Trump’s frequent critique of service’s shipping rates being too low is rooted in a desire to damage Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos. (Amazon, like FedEx and UPS, frequently uses the USPS to handle the final leg of deliveries to rural areas.)
“One of the biggest things standing in the way of the USPS getting the federal assistance it so badly needs right now is because this guy has strongly opposed giving it sufficient aid,” Oliver said, showing a picture of Trump. “And many believe that’s because of its relationship with Amazon. Owned, of course, by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, whose political coverage is hated by the president. Who, as we know, makes policy decisions based on his never-ending game of ‘Six Degrees of How is This About Me.'”
As Oliver pointed out, due to PAEA passing in 2006, the USPS isn’t allowed to ship packages below cost (meaning there is no “sweetheart” deal for Amazon and other carriers). The service is not allowed to raise prices on certain services like first class mail, which only makes it more difficult for the organization to reduce its debt.
Why does it matter? As Oliver notes, the USPS is a “literal lifeline” for many Americans. It reportedly delivered 1.2 billion prescriptions in 2019, including close to 100 percent of prescriptions from Veterans Affairs. At a time when people are unable to visit doctors’ offices or are stuck in their homes due to the coronavirus, any interruptions in service could be deadly.
“At the worst possible time, this American institution is on the brink of collapse,” Oliver said.