Frank DeFilippo: Christmas May Come in April

Photo by William F. Zorzi.

Here’s hoping the Easter Bunny delivers my Christmas gift. Santa Claus tried by mail.

My daughter shipped the package in mid-December, priority mail, two-day delivery, and here it is, exactly one month since Christmas day, and a month-and-a-half since the Post Office assumed possession of the box, and no sign of the gift.

But wait! It gets better and even more tortuous. Multiply one man’s story – mine – by 330 million and you have an idea of what life in America has become with erratic (if you’re lucky) mail service. Not only was the Christmas package a holiday or two late, but relying on mail service to carry out business transactions was at a standstill.

On Jan. 1, as regular as the Gregorian calendar, I wrote three checks and deposited them in the mailbox at the exit of my condominium compound – mortgage payment, condominium fee and internet/cable provider. Presumably they were picked up on Saturday, Jan. 2. Usually there’d be five checks, but the monthly phone and credit card bills did not arrive with their customary punctuality and were way late.

Life is based on assumptions. You flick a switch and expect lights to go on. You drop an envelope into a blue receptacle and assume it will be collected and delivered.

The pay-by date on the internet bill was Jan. 5. On Jan. 10, I received an email stating that my payment was overdue. They made a computer-generated offer – either pay up or a late charge will be assessed, arrange a new payment schedule, or my service will be terminated.

Frank!
Frank A. DeFilippo

After steaming for a couple of days, I paid the internet bill from my checking account through the internet company’s automated phone system. As of this writing, the original check still has either not arrived or been credited to my account. So, I double-paid for the last month. Fees to stop payment on checks are often higher than late charges.

The last thing you want to mess with is a bank credit card account. The late fees are enormous, and the increase in penalizing interest rates – as high as 29.99%, while interest rates are near zero – will have you paying until Armageddon Day, or wind up in debtor’s prison. At another time, those interest rates would have been usurious and illegal. (By the way, what ever happened to usury laws?)

So I turned to the phone again – even though the bill had never arrived – got the balance and paid the total amount due over the automated system. The actual bill arrived in the mail the next day – the day before payment was due. Whew!

Ditto the phone bill, which I never received. I paid over the automated phone system. The actual bill arrived in the mail on Jan. 20 – eight days after the Jan. 12 payment-due date.

I still have no idea whether my condo fee and my mortgage payment arrived at their destinations. I forgot my Internet password on the mortgage account, and the condo association will soon let me know whether I can stay another month. (As this column was being written, an email arrived from my mortgage lender announcing an increase in late fees, among others.)

All of which adds up to one hell of a mess, individually for everyone and nationally for the economic dependence on the mails. And the irony is that while first class and priority mail is delayed by days, even weeks, throw-away junk mail – those bothersome weekly shopping guides and fast-food ads – arrive with more precision than weather forecasts. Not to mention the hours wasted chasing errant mailed checks.

President Biden, in office less than a week, has a compelling pile of stuff on the Resolute Desk – a pandemic, climate change, the economy, racial reckoning and a blizzard of executive actions to sanitize the miasmic mess his predecessor left.

There’s been no mention of one that he should not overlook – the United States Postal Service, long revered and romanticized (rain, sleet or snow) and even lampooned by Newman on “Seinfeld.”

The USPS, in one way or another, touches the life of every American regularly, if not daily. The American economy is built largely on credit and the delivery of bills and their timely return with payment.

And consider that nearly 15 million Americans lack any Internet service at all (including an estimated 425,000 Marylanders), and 25 million who lack faster, more reliable broadband service, as an alternative to mail service as a way of connecting to the economy.

There have been tepid complaints and regular updates about the backlog of mail. It’s remarkable that there is not more of a public uproar over the breakdown of the Postal Service and the inconvenience and hardship that it brings such as late charges, threats from collection services, negative effects on credit ratings and general disappointment.

Biden has already requested a number of resignations, fired a few determined hangers-on and placed a reluctant bureaucrat or two on leave to minimize subversion and sabotage of his administration. Hopefully he’ll get around to the Post Office in quick order.

There’s little he can legally do directly about the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, who is technically appointed by the USPS Board of Governors, whose majority-members were appointed by the departed President Trump to undermine certain USPS services.

At the peak of the Christmas crush, the board expressed approval of DeJoy’s performance, probably bending to the whim of a manic president who left office impeached and in disgrace for insurrection against his own government.

But a president, or his representatives, can surely make life miserable for DeJoy – and the USPS Board of Governors – as the Post Service, by its own description, is “an independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government.”

Thus, Biden does have the leverage of the executive hammer to deal with DeJoy and his fellow travelers on the board. They may have lost their swagger now that their persnickety patron is gone.

To recap: DeJoy is a proclaimed logistics expert, a bean-counter and accountant by background with no Post Office experience. His skill is supposed to be getting things from here to there. DeJoy was also a major contributor and fundraiser for Trump, some of the donations juiced by suspicious methods.

DeJoy is also a stockholder in carrier-rivals UPS and Amazon – the company that provoked Trump’s ire and the whole fuss over the Postal Service (Amazon owner Jeffrey Bezos also owns The Washington Post, whose coverage infuriated Trump. The foreplay was really all about a pernicious scheme of delay or disappearance of mail-in ballots.)

DeJoy eliminated public mail boxes, suspended overtime pay for postal workers and removed sorting equipment from post offices. (There is a report, though unconfirmed independently, that sorting equipment was removed from the main Post Office in Baltimore and that mail is being sent out-of-state to be sorted.)

The USPS posts regular notices stating that the delay in mail service is due largely to the pandemic and its toll on postal workers. Over the holidays, though, the crush of shipments, parcels and first class, was so heavy, mainly because of the increase in on-line shopping, that the three major delivery services, the USPS, FedEx and UPS, couldn’t handle the load. Much of it was dumped on the Postal Service. DeJoy, the logistics expert, couldn’t handle the action.

Try tracking a package and the response you’ll get is that the item in question is in some dark, dank limbo called “In Transit” instead of the customary route stops and arrival-and-departure times.

It has long been the dream of conservatives to eliminate the USPS as a quasi-government service by privatizing it. One way of trying, a while back, was to force the USPS to adopt a 100% percent, fully funded pension system, probably the only one that exists. That means that if every member of the system retires at exactly the same time, which will obviously never happen, the payouts to every retiree would be fully covered.

The Postal Service is exactly that – a public service. Though it is not intended to lose money, it is also not in the business of turning a profit. It’s there to help keep the country and the economy running. The USPS is a way we communicate and, for many, one more way the nation helps to maintain a sense of community. We also pay our bills and some even collect Social Security and tax refund checks through the mail.

But DeJoy might be speeding the conservative dream. He’s helping the Post Office go broke and fall into private hands. Many Americans may begin to pay their bills exclusively by phone or on-line. They may never use stamps again. Maybe that’s precisely DeJoy’s point.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.