The USPS and the Constitution

May 11, 2010

In a Washington Post article on the U.S. Postal Service’s continuing problems, Ed O’Keefe calls the USPS “a quasi-government agency enshrined in the Constitution but required by law to act like a business.”

But there is no “quasi” about it: the USPS is a government agency. It may be different than the standard government agency because it operates like a business, but it’s Uncle Sam’s business

O’Keefe says that the USPS is “enshrined in the Constitution.” It’s true that Article 1, Section 8 says: 
            [The Congress shall have the power] to establish Post Offices and Post Roads. 
Thus, the Constitution allows the government to get involved in postal services, but that doesn’t mean that it has to. If a better alternative came along, then Congress could kill the USPS completely if it wanted. Indeed, a better alternative has come along in the way of more efficient privatized post offices in some European countries.
In addition, the government monopoly over mail was not enshrined in the Constitution. In a 1996 Cato book, “The Last Monopoly,” James I. Campbell writes the following in a chapter on the history of postal monopoly law: 
The U.S. Constitution, in 1789, authorized Congress to establish “Post Offices and post Roads” but, unlike the Articles of Confederation, did not explicitly establish an exclusive monopoly. The first substantive postal law, enacted in 1792, listed post roads to be established, reflecting the traditional concept of postal service as a long-distance transport. It authorized the Postmaster General to enter into contracts for the carriage of “letters, newspapers, and packets” but limited the postal monopoly to “letter or letters, packet or packets, other than newspapers.” 
Today’s 600,000 employee behemoth that delivers mail to every home in the country six days a week reflects the USPS’s evolution as a government entity. It does not reflect some cherished institution dreamed up by the Founding Fathers. According to Campbell, the Post Office “first began delivery of mail to a small portion of the U.S. population” in 1863: 
Until the Postal Act of 1863, the Post Office remained essentially a contracting office for intercity transportation services. In fiscal 1862, costs of intercity and foreign transportation constituted 63 percent of all expenses. Before 1863, intercity letters were either held at the destination post office for collection or delivered by a “letter carrier” who acted as independent contractor and charged the addressee two cents, one of which went to the Post Office. 
Then there’s the issue of intracity mail delivery: 
A person could drop letters at a post for delivery by a letter carrier within the same city, but that was a secondary service as far as the Post Office was concerned; even after the 1863 act, such “drop letters” were considered “not transmitted in the mails of the United States.” 
Delivery of local, intracity letters was pioneered by private companies such as Boyd’s Despatch in New York City and Blood’s Despatch in Philadelphia. One authority counted 147 private local postal companies. The “locals” introduced adhesive postage stamps at least as early as 1841. The Post Office did not introduce stamps until 1847 and did not require their use until 1851. Efforts by the Post Office to suppress the locals failed when, in 1860, a federal court ruled that the postal monopoly pertained only to the transportation of letters over “post roads” between post offices and did not prohibit the delivery of letters within a single postal district. 
The Postal Code of 1872 extended the postal monopoly to the delivery of local letters, banning intracity private carries.
In arguing against ending the government’s mail monopoly, proponents occasionally romanticize it as a special American institution that has been with us since the nation’s founding. But the giant postal monopoly of today bears little resemblance to the limited postal service of history. And that’s not because horses have been replaced with little white trucks.



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