When I started covering politics, Jennings Randolph was completing his tenure as the grand old man of Capitol Hill. The last sitting member of Congress to have arrived with Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 (as a member of the House), he was still sitting as a senator from West Virginia more than fifty years later. Perhaps as importantly, he had been born only a little more than a century after the Constitution was adopted.
Randolph recognized the connection between the Constitution and the New Deal, seeing in both an element of nation-building that focused on the affirmative role of government and the necessary role of the extension of the federal government that could be found in every hinterland hamlet and urban neighborhood: the post office.
Randolph was the great defender of the postal service that Ben Franklin had established and that the framers of the Constitution had seen fit to recognize as an essential project of the federal endeavor.
Randolph waxed poetic about the post office, respecting the local facility, be it a frame building at a country crossroads or a brick-and-mortar monument at the center of the largest city. It was, he said, more than a purveyor of packages and mail, more than a source of employment, more even than a meeting spot and focal point for community.
The post office, Randolph explained, was the friendly and honorable face of a government that could otherwise seem distant and, at times, ominous.
As a true Jeffersonian Democrat, and a faithful New Dealer, Randolph argued that those who understood the positive role that government could play in the lives and communities of Americans had better make the defense of the post office a high priority.
“When the post office is closed, the flag comes down,” he said. “When the human side of government closes its doors, we’re all in trouble.”
Randolph spoke the faith of the small-“d” democrat with those words—and, at least in his time, that of the large-“D” Democrat.
But, now, Democrats and Republicans in Washington are entertaining proposals that would, in the words of the American Postal Workers Union, “end the postal service as we know it.”
There are proposals afoot to close as many as 3,700 post offices nationwide—most of them in rural communities and inner cities, where there services (and the employment they provide) are most needed.
There are proposals to end Saturday delivery, and perhaps to make even more extensive cutbacks—moves that would drive more business away from the US Postal Service and toward private-sector competitors that will not match its standard of universal service to all Americans.
There are proposals to break union contracts, layoff tens of thousands of postal workers and gut the service.
Why? Because of bad policies forced upon the USPS, policies that could be reversed as quickly as they were implemented. Those bad policies have created what is called a “financial crisis.” This is not a “financial” crisis; it is a “political” crisis.
The postal service is running the deficits that so concern conservative politicians and pundits not because it is inefficient, and not even because it faces new forms of digital competition. It is running deficits because it was forced to pre-pay seventy-five years of retiree health benefits in ten years, and because it overpaid federal pension funds by more than $80 billion.
The crisis is, as Ralph Nader and other consumer advocates argue, “manufactured.”
Across the country Tuesday, tens of thousands of postal workers, union allies and community advocates rallied to defend the United States Postal Service and to argue for responsible Congressional action to renew and strengthen a precious public asset. Backed by five major postal unions and worker groups — the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Postal Mailhandlers Union, the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association and the National Association of Postal Supervisors — the rallies took place at close to 500 locations (post offices, congressional offices, state capitols) nationwide, in one of the broadest displays of support for public services the nation has seen in many years.
Jennings Randolph (who passed in 1998) isn’t around to cheer them on. But if he were, he would celebrate the fact that there are still great masses of Americans who recognize that “when the human side of government closes its doors, we’re all in trouble.”