In May, a report from the Government Accountability Office called the agency’s business model “not financially sustainable”—a conclusion it had reached before the impact of the coronavirus was factored in. The report called for Congress to make changes to “critical foundational elements” of how USPS operates. In other words, COVID-19 might be an easy scapegoat to justify a federal bailout, but the pandemic is not the main problem, and a bailout would not be a permanent solution.
Thanks to congressional mandates, the USPS has been unable to adapt to a changing marketplace. First-class mail has declined 44 percent since 2006, but Congress has rejected proposals that would free the postal service to operate more like a business, instead requiring the agency to deliver mail everywhere six days per week regardless of cost efficiency.
Second, like many government entities, the USPS has overpromised and undersaved when it comes to employee retirement benefits. At the end of 2019, the postal workers’ pension fund had $50 billion in unfunded liabilities—the gap between what the fund expects to owe beneficiaries over the long term and the revenue it expects to collect from paychecks and investment earnings. Meanwhile, the fund that covers health care expenses for retired postal workers is facing a $69 billion unfunded liability. The pandemic’s economic impact has made both situations worse.