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Monday, February 20, 2017

Check's In The Mail

[The Post Office] is perhaps the only mercantile project which has been successfully managed by, I believe, every sort of government. 

 - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (Book V, Ch 2)


The Post Office has been around since before we had even declared independence--with Ben Franklin made the first Postmaster General--showing just how important communication in general and the postal service in particular is.  The Articles Congress passed An Ordinance for Regulating the Post-Office of the United States of America in 1782.  

Once the US Congress ramped up under our Constitution in 1789, the House wanted to continue the existing regime: 

[U]ntil further provision be made by law, the General Post Office of the United States shall be conducted according to the rules and regulations prescribed: by the ordinances and resolutions of the late Congress, and that contracts be made for the conveyance of the mail in conformity thereto...

But the Senate had other ideas, and on September 11:

Mr. Butler, in behalf of the committee appointed on the tenth of September, on the resolve of the House of Representatives, providing for the regulation of the post of flee, reported, not to concur in the resolve, and a bill upon the subject matter thereof;

And, on the question of concurrence in the resolve of the House of Representatives:

It passed in the negative.

Ordered, That the bill, entitled "An act for the temporary establishment of the post office," have the first reading at this time.

It's not apparent from the record how much, if any, debate there was on the bill.  It zipped through the Senate, and was passed even more rapidly by the House.  The act was extremely brief and its operation was limited through the next session, though it had to be renewed the following August, and again in March after that (when service was also extended to Bennington in the new state of Vermont!).  It appears the Legislative branch has always had difficulty addressing some issues and needed to extend "temporary" solutions time and again.

Anyway, Congress put the Post Office under the Executive branch, which makes sense.  What they didn't do was provide the department much power except basically making contracts for transport of the mail.  The further expansion of the system, and delegation of authority to do so, was an unresolved constitutional question.  Because, you know, it is the Legislative branch who was granted this power in Article I, Section 8To establish Post Offices and Post Roads.  

Which brings us to the Second Congress.  President Washington lit a fire under legislators on October 25, 1791:

I shall content myself with a general reference to former communications for several objects, upon which the urgency of other affairs has hitherto postponed any definitive resolution. Their importance will recal them to your attention; and, I trust, that the progress already made in the most arduous arrangements of the government will afford you leisure to resume them with advantage.

There are, however, some of them of which I cannot forbear a more particular mention. These are: the militia; the post-office and post roads; the mint; weights and measures; a provision for the sale of the vacant lands of the United States.
...
The importance of the post-office and post reads, on a plan sufficiently liberal and comprehensive, as they respect the expedition, safety, and facility of communication, is increased by their instrumentality in diffusing a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the government; which, while it contributes to the security of the people, serves also to guard them against the effects of misrepresentation and misconception. The establishment of additional cross posts, especially to some of the important points in the western and northern parts of the Union, cannot fail to be of material utility.

So the House finally got to work in earnest on December 6.  Mr Sedgwick started things off with a motion to have the president establish postal routes, as opposed to Congress' specifying each road in legislation.  There was objection:

Mr Livermore observed that the Legislative body being empowered by the Constitution "to establish post offices and post roads," it is as clearly their duty to designate the roads as to establish the offices; and he did not think they could with propriety delegate that power, which they were themselves appointed to exercise. Some gentlemen, he knew, were of opinion that the business of the United States could be better transacted by a single person than by many; but this was not the intention of the Constitution.

It was provided that the Government should be administered by Representatives, of the people's choice; so that every man, who has the right of voting, shall be in some measure concerned in making every law for the United States. The establishment of post roads he considered as a very important object; but he did not wish to see them so diffused as to become a heavy charge where the advantage resulting from them would be but small; nor, on the other hand, for the sake of bringing a revenue into the Treasury, consent to straiten them so as to check the progress of information.

If the post office were to be regulated by the will of a single person, the dissemination of intelligence might be impeded, and the people kept entirely in the dark with respect to the transactions of Government; or the Postmaster, if vested with the whole power, might branch out the offices to such a degree as to make them prove a heavy burden to the United States.

A reply:

Mr Sedgwick felt himself by no means disposed to resign all the business of the House to the President, or to any one else; but he thought that the Executive part of the business ought to be left to Executive officers. He did not, for his part, know the particular circumstances of population, geography, &c., which had been taken into the calculation by the select committee, when they pointed out the roads delineated in the bill; but he would ask, whether they understood the subject so thoroughly as the Executive officer would, who being responsible to the people for the proper discharge of the trust reposed in him, must use his utmost diligence in order to a satisfactory execution of the delegated power?

As to the constitutionality of this delegation, it was admitted by the committee themselves who brought in the bill; for if the power was altogether indelegable, no part of it could be delegated; and if a part of it could, he saw no reason why the whole could not. The second section was as unconstitutional as the first, for it is there said, that "it shall be lawful for the Postmaster General to establish such other roads as post roads, as to him may seem necessary."

Congress, he observed, are authorized not only to establish post offices and post roads, but also to borrow money; but is it understood that Congress are to go in a body to borrow every sum that may be requisite? Is it not rather their office to determine the principle on which the business is to be conducted, and then delegate the power of carrying their resolves into execution? They are also empowered to coin money, and if no part of their power be delegable, he did not know but they might be obliged to turn coiners, and work in the Mint themselves. 

Yaddayaddayadda.  

At the heart of discussion wasn't just whether Congress could delegate such power, but was it even a good idea?  Was the USPS a business, in essence, that should be run super efficiently with substantial executive discretion and maybe even generate some revenue for the national government?  Or was it really an essential public service that needed to be more responsive to the needs of the People and thus required very particular oversight by their representatives in the legislature?

Sedgwick's motion was defeated the following day, so it appears that Congress felt the Post Office wasn't a business per se.  Something that Darrell Issa ought to keep in mind.

Finally, a bill with about 50 lines of designated postal routes was delivered to the Senate on January 10, 1792.  Senators nitpicked, then the chambers came to agreement and Washington signed the rather expansive bill into law on this date.

Now, let's take bets on how quickly Trump will try to destroy my beloved Postal Service.  How much money did FedEx and UPS execs donate to his campagin?

ntodd

February 20, 2017 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink

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