As the coronavirus began spreading across the country in March, a white-and-blue postcard from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in every mailbox in the United States. It communicated basic public health do’s and don’ts—wash your hands, avoid crowds, stay home if you feel sick—which were billed as “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America.”
Most of the 330 million Americans who got the postcard probably disposed of it quickly. Six months later, however, the memory of it lingers in at least one place: the U.S. Postal Service. That’s because the agency has yet to be reimbursed by the Department of Health and Human Services for the cost of delivery.
In March, USA Today reported that the Postal Service was working with the Trump administration on a reimbursement plan. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the USPS told The Daily Beast that the agency “has not received any reimbursement at this time” from the federal government. Representatives for HHS, the cabinet department in which the CDC sits, did not respond to requests for comment.
While no information was provided, or is publicly available, about how much it cost to send the mailer, the expense was likely significant. Experts told The Daily Beast that the cost of sending a piece of commercial mail to every address in the country would add up to roughly $20 million to $25 million.
In some of the federal government’s massive departmental budgets, $20 million might be a rounding error. Less so with the U.S. Postal Service, which has faced a cash crunch for years and is currently hoping for emergency funding from Congress—the leading bills propose anywhere from $10 to $25 billion in relief—as the coronavirus pandemic batters the agency’s finances.
To those familiar with the workings of the USPS, it’s no small thing that the beleaguered public service remains on the hook for the cost of a massive delivery it orchestrated half a year ago.
“The U.S. Postal Service is a self-funding agency,” said Kevin Kosar, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank who studies the USPS. “By law it should be paid whenever it provides delivery services—whether the buyer is the private sector or a government agency. I’m dismayed the CDC has failed to live up to its obligation to pay for the millions of postcards that USPS workers delivered six months ago. These same workers risk their health every day, and the agency is incurring additional operating costs due to COVID-19. Which makes it all the more important that the CDC pay its bill.”
The Postal Service’s shaky finances formed the justification for a regime of aggressive cost-cutting by the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy—reforms that ended up sparking widespread mail delivery delays and a crisis of confidence at the USPS. In testimony on Capitol Hill in August defending his leadership of the agency, DeJoy repeatedly pointed to the need to reduce overhead and increase efficiency in order to secure long-term viability for an agency teetering on the fiscal edge. Only in Washington,D.C., DeJoy said, would the agency’s $10 billion cash on hand reserves “be a good position to be in.”
To the Trump administration’s critics, it’s hard to separate the issue of the cost from the content of the mailer itself. While the public health guidelines outlined on the back of the postcard were straightforward, the layout of the front—which places President Trump’s name front-and-center—raised eyebrows at the time. Michael Carome, of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, argued to USA Today in March that Trump was using the “levers of government” to “promote his own interests.”
Reached by The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Carome described the failure to pay back USPS as “one more drop in the bucket of ineptness” of the administration’s COVID-19 response.
And Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project, an anti-corruption nonprofit group, argued that Trump “essentially stole $20-25 million of work for his campaign” through the mailer, calling it a new step in Trump’s “war on vote by mail.”