In theory, the US Postal Service is run by a Board of Governors, appointed by the President and confirmed by the US Senate.. In practice, the USPS Board is now missing all nine of its appointed members. As the USPS website explains:

The Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service is comparable to a board of directors of a publicly held corporation. The Board normally consists of up to nine governors appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. The nine governors select the Postmaster General, who becomes a member of the Board, and those 10 select the Deputy Postmaster General, who also serves on the Board. The Postmaster General serves at the pleasure of the governors for an indefinite term and the Deputy Postmaster General serves at the pleasure of the governors and the Postmaster General.

Except that the Obama administration has not been appointing new members to the Board of Governors as the terms of previous members expired.  When the term for James Bilbray expired last week and he was required to leave office, the contingent of nine appointees to the USPS Board of Governors is now down to zero members. As Bilbray said in November 2015, rather plaintively: \” “I have the help of my Deputy Postmaster General and my Postmaster General, but I cannot effectively run the United States Post Office by myself. … We are shocked that somebody out there doesn’t hear us, doesn’t hear how badly we are off. [We are down to] one governor: me.” As the USPS website puts it: \”Each governor receives $300 per day for not more than 42 days of meetings each year and travel expenses, in addition to an annual salary of $30,000. Nine vacancies exist on the Board.\”

The Office of the Inspector General for the US Post Office publishes a report on the subject, \”Governance of the U.S.Postal Service\” (November 10, 2016, RARC-WP-17-002). For example, it points out that under law there are certain powers that cannot be delegated by the Board to the Postmaster General. With zero Board members, certain changes and activities are not legally possible. For example, the report notes (footnotes omitted):

\”While the Board of Governors can delegate many things to the Postmaster General, there are items that, by law, only the presidentially appointed Governors can do. These include, but are not limited to

  •  Appointment, compensation, term of service, and removal of the Postmaster General
  • Compensation of the Deputy Postmaster General 
  • Establishment of rates and classes for competitive postal products
  • Authorization of rate and fee changes for market dominant postal products
  • Authorization of a request to the PRC to add, remove, or reclassify products
  • Authorization of a notice to the PRC of substantive changes to product descriptions in the Mail Classification Schedule 
  • Appointment and removal of the Inspector General
  • Transmission of the OIG’s Semi-Annual Report to Congress
  • Selection of a firm to conduct required USPS financial audits …

As part of the executive branch, the Appointments Clause of the Constitution requires the Postal Service to be led by principal officers who are appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Governors fulfill that role, as was confirmed by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. With no sitting governors, the Postal Service’s constitutional authority to take certain actions could be in question. This would be an unprecedented situation.\”  

The situation with the USPS Board of Governors raises some big questions, along with specific issues related to the postal service. The US President is now required to appoint people to about 3,800 positions, which can be broken down into four categories: \”Presidential Appointments with Senate confirmation (PAS), Presidential Appointments without Senate confirmation (PSs), political appointees to the Senior Executive Service (SES), and Schedule C political appointees.\”

Thus, while most of the attention for the incoming Trump administration is on high-profile appointments to cabinet-level posts, there are bigger issues. For example, who will get appointed to the thousands of less visible jobs? In addition, given that political appointees may move on to other jobs, and need to be replaced, the reality is that the the Office of the President needs to be on a continual hunt for people with the background and interest to fill thousands of positions–and given the turnover, probably needs to be appointing a few dozen people to a wide variety of slots almost every week.

Filling these appointed slots has been an ongoing  issue for the Obama administration. For example, a report in 2010 from the left-leaning Center for American Progress found: \”The Obama administration had in place 64.4 percent of Senate-confirmed executive agency positions after one year, compared to 86.4 for the Reagan administration, 80.1 percent for the George H.W. Bush administration, 73.8 percent for the George W. Bush administration, and 69.8 percent for the Clinton administration. In percentage terms, after one year, the Obama administration ranked last or next to last (out of the five administrations examined) in filling important positions in 10 of 16 major federal agencies.\” Those problems with filling appointed slots continued: for example, here\’s a New York Times article on the problems of not filling appointed slots in 2013, and here\’s a Politico article on the same problems in 2016.

Of course, a structural problem here is that potential presidential appointments are often blocked by grandstanding US Senators, often for reasons that don\’t have much to do with the actual person being appointed. But in many other cases, the situation is simply that no one is being put forward to fill appointed positions.

In the particular case of the USPS Board of Governors, there are a number of reasons the positions could be difficult to fill. Getting people to sign up for a nine-year term–even if they can quit early–can be a hard sell. The pay means that it\’s clearly not intended to be a full-time job. The USPS doesn\’t seem like a stepping-stone to major career advancement or consulting contracts. Perhaps most discouraging of all, the US Postal Service is officially controlled by Congress, and can be overruled by Congress on any decision it makes. As the USPS Inspector General report notes:

The governors of the Postal Service must represent the public interest generally and not any particular group.Yet determining the public’s interest and how best to serve it can be difficult, even in the broadest sense. Some argue it lies in consistent and universally accessible consumer mail services; others in a vibrant commercial mail sector; still others in preserving the dissemination of cultural and civic discourse. When interests conflict, as in the controversies over service levels, network consolidation, and prices, balancing the public’s needs is the classic democratic conundrum. Each governor must decide for himself or herself what serving the public interest means.

Thus, a member of the USPS Board of Governors gets relatively little pay (relative to the qualifications needed for doing the job), has very limited power to make significant changes, and are likely to be vehemently second-guessed if they support any decision that upsets anyone. So I\’m not arguing that these slots are easy to fill.

Still, when such a high proportion of appointed positions across government are going unfilled, and at least one board has completely run out of members, its hard to avoid the conclusions that the current system of presidential appointments is dysfunctional, and that the current White House has not done a particularly good job of navigating through the problems.

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