Politics Carries the Mail

I AM the most important person in the army after your excellency, for you are the head of the serpent, and I am the tail. — RICHARD WALL to his Prince, circa 1719


GOOD news is coming. Very shortly Mr. Farley will announce another surplus.

It will not be an excess of income over outgo, as surpluses were so accurately defined in the florid elocution of that great practical economist, Wilkins Micawber, but an ‘official’ surplus nevertheless; and if history repeats the national experience of 1934 and 1935, the newspapers once more will bring forth their most compelling block types to proclaim the Post Office’s balanced budget — for the third successive year!

The achievement commands attention, not so much for the light it throws upon the efficiency of the postal service in recent years as for the evidence it offers of a new method of purely political bookkeeping. At best the balance sheets out of Washington are subject to hairsplitting legalistic interpretations; and at worst, as in the annual postal summaries, they approach closely those forms of public fraud which both the Securities Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission were established to curb in private enterprise.

Figures are tiring, so we shall use them sparingly — and always keep them below a billion, even at the cost of leaving the audited record for a page or two at a time.

On December 3, 1935, the Honorable William W. Howes, First Assistant Postmaster General, appeared before the House Committee on Appropriations for examination relative to the postal estimates for the fiscal year 1937, a matter of $778,140,684. The printed transcript of the proceedings, deposited in the Library of Congress on February 5, 1936, carries an extended recapitulation of postal receipts and expenditures since 1930. On pages 4 and 5, under the item ‘gross audited deficit,’appear these totals: —

Fiscal Year (ended, June 30) Gross A udited Deficit
1930 $98,215,987
1931 146,066,189
1932 205,550,611
1933 112,374,892
1931 44,033,834
1935 65,807,950
1936 90,652,0541
1937 78,909,1492

From this tabulation the question arises: How will Mr. Farley in his press releases covering the fiscal year 1936, which ends on June 30 next, manage to show a surplus, after his First Assistant Postmaster General has sworn before the House Committee on Appropriations to a prospective deficit of more than $90,000,000 for the year?

Quite obviously Mr. Farley will attempt this amazing feat in fourth-dimension integration, for at a testimonial dinner tendered him on February 8, 1936, he told the employees of the New York Post Office: ‘For the past two years there has been a continual improvement in the postal business, and during these two years the service of the Department for which the public pays in postage has been conducted within the revenues received for those services which it holds for hire. Not only have we been able to wipe out the huge annual deficits in those services for which the public pays, but many improvements have been made in the service as well as many additions and extensions.’

Last year (fiscal year 1935), Mr. Farley was able to report a surplus of roundly $5,000,000 at a time when the audited accounts of the Department showed a deficit of approximately $66,000,000. An examination of the balancing method in that instance provides a probable guide to the now imminent operation upon the figures of the current fiscal year.

In his annual report for 1935, addressed to the President of the United States, Mr. Farley said in his third sentence, ‘I am pleased to report that for the second successive year the ordinary operations of the postal service were maintained within the postal revenues.’ How, then, may this glowing impression of a balanced postal budget, as released to the press, be squared with the actual postal deficit of $66,000,000?

The answer, of course, comes from Amos ’n’ Andy — ‘You deducts.’ Mr. Farley’s words mean what they say, but not what they appear to mean. No one unfamiliar with Washington localisms ever could explain how his sentence slips under the wire to the protected area of official truth. The elastic element in the sentence is the term ‘ordinary operations.’ For an explanation as to wherein ordinary operations differ from simple, everyday operations, as that term generally is used in the English language, we turn again to Mr. Farley’s official report for 1935: —

The primary function of the Post Office Department is to render service to the people generally, for which it receives pay in the form of postage and fees collected from those who use its facilities.

Second, it handles without charge mail matter for Congress and all other governmental agencies; carries free of charge reading matter for the blind, newspapers for delivery within the county of publication, and carries without collection at zone rates of postage certain publications entitled under the law to preferential treatment; provides quarters and other facilities in post-office buildings without receiving payment therefor.

Third, it pays, in the form of mail contracts, subsidies for the maintenance of an American Merchant Marine and for the promotion and development of aviation. . . . Taking credit for these non-postal and adjusted items, amounting to $70,772,100, there was a net surplus of $4,904,149.31 with respect to that part of the Department’s services which are rented for hire.

Mr. Farley presumes to find authority for these deductions in an act of June 9, 1930, which requires the Postmaster General to communicate to the Treasury at the end of each fiscal year the amount of postal revenue which, at the regular rates, would have been collected on free government mail — plus certain other preferential items relatively negligible in amount. During the fiscal year 1935 these items aggregated 147,685,000 pounds of mail. The revenue at regular rates would have been $32,566,239, of which $31,858,942 would have been collected from the government.3

But these items present less than half of the deductibles. The remainder, roundly $41,000,000, is found in three considerable items of positive outlay— $28,000,000 for ocean-mail subsidies, $8,000,000 for air-mail subsidies, and $5,000,000 for janitor and watchman services, electricity, and heat prorated to other Federal agencies occupying postal quarters.

Here, then, are roundly $73,500,000 in deductions and adjustments set against the ‘gross audited deficit’ of $65,800,000; which clearly leaves a postal operating ‘profit’ of roundly $7,700,000. From this there is now subtracted a final adjustment item of $3,900,000, covering ‘prior current obligations,’mostly in open construction contracts. All of these items, when carried to exact dollars and cents in the audited reports of the Department, produce the hypothetical Farley surplus of $4,964,149.31, as reported to the President and the press.4

Thus do we arrive at the rounded formula for that mysterious political alchemy which transmutes the base metal of a $66,000,000 deficit into the sparkling publicity gold of a $5,000,000 surplus. No matter how large the deficit, the process of conversion is the same.

The Division of Cost Ascertainment was established in the Post Office Department by an act of February 28, 1925. Since about 1927 the cost-revenue relationship of every branch of the postal service has been known to every administration. But never before 1934 were certain items of expenditure deducted from the auditors’ tables prior to their release in summary form to the press. The special provision of June 9, 1930, requiring the formal certification of the government, deadhead volume, was for the express purpose of focusing public attention upon the lavish government mailbag and its extravagant cost to the taxpayers. In the record of the legislation there is no suggestion that the measure was conceived as a new proposal to fool all of the people all of the time.

Some reputable commentators, in discussing Mr. Farley’s tremendously publicized surpluses of 1934 and 1935, have accused the Postmaster General of juggling the figures. A more charitable view is that he limited himself to juggling public information. Everybody reads the newspapers, but practically nobody reads the annual reports of the Postmaster General, or the thousand-page stenographic transcripts from the House Committee on Appropriations covering the annual postal supply bills. When Mr. Farley, either in the capacity of Postmaster General of the United States or Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, presents a statement regarding postal finances which is grossly at variance with his auditors’ figures, he probably is doing no more than any other ambitious politician would do in the circumstances.


The same broad principles of political window dressing which guide postal budget policies appear also to govern Mr. Farley’s major decisions touching personnel administration.

As of March 1933 there were, in our 46,000 post offices, roundly 13,600 postmasters subject to presidential appointment. Under the then prevailing order, which had been last changed fundamentally in 1921, candidates were selected from among the three highest eligibles certified to the Postmaster General by the Civil Service Commission. This provision was mandatory, but it did not give Mr. Farley sufficient elbowroom for the emergency operations which the times, and the pressures of the party faithful, appeared to demand.

On July 12, 1933, a presidential executive order issued from the White House which empowered the Postmaster General thenceforward to disqualify any certified candidate at will. This obscure provision empowered the Post Office Department, in fact, to call for examinations again and again in relation to the same vacancy, until the desired political candidate should ‘qualify.’ The detailed operation of this extraordinary arrangement in nominal Civil Service examinations, explored in our next section herewith, has led to a number of appointments distinctly offensive to the postal morale.

In another clause, the President’s order disqualifies the incumbent postmaster, at the expiration of his four-year appointive term, for competition in these nominal Civil Service examinations. It also bars all classified Civil Service employees in presidential post offices from attempting to qualify for a vacant postmastership by competitive test.

This executive order, the import of which was generally missed at the time, now is regarded by authorities on Civil Service history as the most flagrant planned retrogression in merit administration since establishment of the competitive regime in 1883. Other administrations had seen fit to cut corners here and there by various devices and winking stratagems, but here was a positive change of the legal scheme, to meet the requirements of spoils. In its annual report for 1934 the National Civil Service Reform League alluded to the examinations prescribed by Mr. Roosevelt’s executive order as ‘a sham and a mere cloak for the spoils system,’ as a ‘disgrace to the Roosevelt Administration and a serious liability to the Civil Service Commission.’ Such violence did the new arrangement offer against established Civil Service practice that soon thereafter the Civil Service Commission began to append to its calls for postmaster examinations in the three presidential classes: ‘This is not an examination under the Civil Service Act and rules, but is held under an Executive Order of July 12, 1933, providing for such procedure.’

Of equal significance with the order itself was the manner of its promulgation. It was released at the White House simultaneously with an official announcement that Mr. Roosevelt this day had asked the Postmaster General to draft legislation which would bring all presidential postmasters under Civil Service law. So sensational was this gesture toward cleaning out the refuse pile of Federal political patronage that for a time it drove even the then budding NRA to the inside pages. It was a breath of cool air in a land of hot hysteria. In the mounting enthusiasm for so noble a step in Civil Service reform the tortuous and obscure legal language of the appended executive order was entirely ignored or missed. Many news reports of the day intimated that the executive order accomplished instantly by emergency fiat the steps which Mr. Farley’s bill would ratify in due course. It seemed to be a reasonable forecast and was so accepted.

So much for the promise. Now let us look at the actual legislative history of the policy for which so much had been expected. The story is briefly told. Nineteen months elapsed without action. Then on February 6, 1935, Mr. Farley’s bill was submitted simultaneously to the Post Office Committees of the House and Senate. To date neither body has called it from the calendar for consideration. Meanwhile, the provisions of the executive order of July 12 have been operative for thirty-three months.

Following a new series of attacks upon political postmasters, in the House and Senate, President Roosevelt initiated conferences a month ago with departmental advisers and Congressional leaders concerned directly with Civil Service affairs. Thereafter, at his press conference on February 21, 1936, the Chief Executive made it clear that he would press for final legislative action on the Farley bill during the present session. A week later, however, no Congressional action indicative of an agreement between the two houses, or of a clear determination to enact the law, was visible on Capitol Hill. With all of this, one cannot but remember that a presidential election is due next November.

By these measures, four months after inauguration, the way was cleared for purely political selections in all presidential post offices. The range of appointments thus subject to the decisive selective influence of the Postmaster General may be judged by the fact that during the fiscal year 1935 alone no less than 3369 presidential postmasters were confirmed by the Senate. Among this number only twenty-five classified Civil Service postal employees won postmasterships by advancement from the ranks. In the same fiscal year, 2179 appointive terms expired in presidential postoffices, but only 277 incumbent postmasters were reappointed.

By way of measuring the intensity of the spoils raids within the Post Office we need only compare the 3369 presidential postmaster confirmations during 1935 with the total of 821 reported by the Civil Service Commission for the fiscal year 1932.

‘We have received numerous complaints of presidential postmasters being asked to resign before the expiration of their appointive terms and being immediately succeeded by “acting postmasters” for obviously political reasons,’ the National Civil Service Reform League reported on November 15,1933. ‘Two letters to the Post Office Department for information as to the number so removed elicited the reply that these figures were not available, and that the labor involved precluded their being prepared.’


Understanding well that matters in the Post Office are not always precisely as the newspapers say, men of long experience in Washington now are quite indifferent to the fact that the departmental labor involved precludes the presentation of any information whatever in that quarter touching fundamental concerns of public policy.

It falls within my own experience, for example, that an Assistant Postmaster General once responded in apparent sincerity that the Department did not carry an index of incumbent postmasters which showed expiration dates of appointive terms. On another occasion the chief of an important administrative section responded, with flattering regret, that no one in the Department possibly could know how many presidential postmasters had since 1933 been removed prior to the expiration of their appointive terms. The Chief Clerk of the Department once responded that even the Postmaster General had no way of knowing who sponsored a certain candidate for postmaster in Boston, whose confirmation at the moment was being resisted vigorously by two Democratic Senators from Massachusetts. It is well known, however, to voters in the Bay State that the two principal sponsors of the nomination were leaders in the political faction actively supporting the Administration’s policies.

It is known also that Postmaster William E. Hurley, whom the politicians sought to remove, boasted a Civil Service record covering thirty-five years in the ranks. A former Member of Congress, Mr. Peter Tague, who was active in behalf of the Roosevelt candidacy in Massachusetts in 1932, is Mr. Farley’s choice for the berth. If the opposition of the two Massachusetts Senators can be broken by political pressures in Washington, he will be confirmed in the present session.

This spoils raid parallels closely the turnover in New York City in 1933. There, John F. Keily, with a Civil Service record covering forty years, had served with distinction two terms as postmaster. His advancement from the classified ranks in 1925 to the nation’s premier postmastership was hailed throughout the service as a crowning triumph for the merit system. Under pressure, however, by Mr. Edward J. Flynn, PWA Administrator for New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and Mr. Farley’s powerful ally in the Bronx, Mr. Keily was demoted late in 1933 to the grade of assistant postmaster, to serve the two years required for his pension eligibility. Thereupon, Mr. Albert Goldman, New York Commissioner of Plants and Structures under Mayor James J. Walker, was appointed postmaster.

In these two instances alone, no less than seventy-five years of faithful service to the government is swept away by the spoilsmen.

Aroused by a wave of dismissals among their number late in 1933, the Service Postmasters’ Association, comprising appointees elevated from the clerical ranks, launched an informal national survey of such cases. They counted no less than 175 displacements of service postmasters between March 4, 1933, and January 1, 1934. Many of these liquidated postmasters had been in the classified Civil Service as long as twenty years before attaining heart’s desire in the form of the postmastership. All had been advanced to the rank of postmaster prior to the Harding administration. From the files of the Service Postmasters’ Association come these characteristic details: Jesse W. Noble, postmaster at Manitou, Colorado, dismissed after thirty-three years in the classified service; Hugh W. Judd, Watsonville, California, after thirty-two years; Philip K. Dewire, New London, Connecticut, thirty-two years; Benjamin W. Landborg, Elgin, Illinois, thirty years; Cyrus W. Ricketts, Paola, Kansas, twenty-six years. And so the list runs, through every state in the Union.

At Grand Rapids, Michigan, the postmaster had been thirty-nine years in the postal service. At fifty-nine years of age he was returned to the role of clerk, in favor of a prominent local Democrat who assumed the duties of acting postmaster. Unable to maintain the pace at the sorting racks where he had begun as a lad of twenty years, the liquidated postmaster requested assignment as a supervisor. The petition was denied. As the clerk’s pay was only a few dollars more than his earned retirement annuity, he ended his Civil Service career by refuge to the pension rolls.

How many active men thus have been forced prematurely to the retired rolls probably could not be determined in the Post Office Department without much labor; but from page 82 of Mr. Farley’s annual report for 1935 we learn that during the fiscal year ended June 30, 1934, there were 9310 retirements in all grades of the postal service, against 2698 in the fiscal year 1932, and 4665 in the fiscal year 1933.

Total separations from the active postal service for all causes (among only the 215,000 employees contributing to the pension fund) were 7140 during the fiscal year 1932 and 14,357 during the fiscal year 1934. Separations by death alone, however, did not increase. These were 1167 in 1932, and 1192 in 1934.

Seldom does the complete record of political interference with Civil Service procedure find its way into the Congressional Record. But one such case is traced in the two-hour Senate debate of February 6,1936, concerning a nomination for postmaster at Cody, Nebraska. The name submitted by President Roosevelt, and favorably reported by the Senate Post Office Committee, was that of a lady whom the debate disclosed to be a sister of the Democratic county chairman for Cherry County. The job is of no importance. Cody is a village of less than six hundred population on the Chicago & North Western about ten miles north of the Niobrara River. But, in the history of Civil Service, Cody is a cause célèbre.

To fill a legitimate vacancy, the lady in nomination was appointed acting postmaster on February 18, 1934. Routine examinations were held by the Civil Service Commission on March 24, and the results certified to the Post Office Department on May 23. In this examination the lady in nomination had failed to qualify. Soon afterward, the Post Office requested the Civil Service Commission to review the records of the examination, to which the Commission responded in due course that no error could be found. There was no reason, as the Commission viewed it, for changing the ratings of the several applicants examined. Thus the matter dragged on for ten months. In March 1935, the Post Office formally requested the Civil Service Commission to hold a new examination.

‘So far as I know,’ said Senator Norris in outlining the case on the floor, ‘ no charges ever have been made that there was anything wrong with the first examination, but the Civil Service Commission proceeded to hold another examination.’

In the second examination, on July 25, 1935, the acting postmaster was placed third on the list. Iler name then was submitted for confirmation.

‘ It. is with the hope that at some time Congress will enact such a law, and take the Post Office completely and entirely out of the control of politicians and job hunters, that I am making the few remarks I submit to-day,’ Senator Norris explained. Whereupon, at the conclusion of a spirited debate pointed sharply in the direction of the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the lady was confirmed in due form.

Many irregularities of this and other forms in the selection of presidential postmasters have been aired from time to time during the last three years — in the debates of Congress, protests to the Civil Service Commission, extracurriculum addresses of Senators and Representatives, and the periodical publications of the postal federations. Notable among appointments thus challenged on various counts of flagrant spoilsmanship were those at Brooklyn, Boston, New York, Grand Rapids, Atlantic City, St. Louis, Cleveland, Columbus, and Pittsburgh; Springfield, Massachusetts; Yankton, South Dakota; Bristol, Vermont; and Beloit, Wisconsin. Viewed together in retrospect, these cases, and all those others which they epitomize, appear to illuminate with dazzling light the prophetic statement of Mr. Farley before the Jefferson Day banquet at Minneapolis on May 8, 1933: ‘We know that for every job we can find a Democrat of superior qualifications.’

And wherever necessary, to bring these superior qualifications through the nominal Civil Service routine prescribed by the artfully framed executive order of July 12, 1933, the Postmaster General always rings twice.


As Senator Norris observed parenthetically in the Cody debates, this postmaster business ‘ has controlled our official life for one hundred years.’ In political literature, the story of the Jacksonian Era is an old wives’ tale. On the occasion of Lincoln’s first inauguration, runs one official history of the Civil Service Commission, ‘a large number of Republicans who desired post offices formed a guard to protect the President from assassination, thinking that thereby they might obtain easy access to him, and so press their claims to the best advantage.’ William Dudley Foulke, in his classic Fighting the Spoilsmen, tells of Lincoln’s having once pointed out an eager multitude of office seekers thronging the White House: ‘There you see something which in the course of time will become a greater danger to the Republic than the rebellion itself.’ And to Carl Schurz Lincoln once remarked : ’I am afraid this thing is going to ruin republican government.’

Andrew Johnson’s ‘bread-and-butter brigade’ remains an historical highlight of the Reconstruction Era. Grover Cleveland, sickened of patronage intrigues, rapped knuckles to the right and left; and when his first term ended in 1889 he had almost doubled the classified personnel. In his second term he more than doubled the Civil Service rolls — increasing them from 37,865 to 87,044 by March 3, 1897.

Theodore Roosevelt, a former vigorous member of the Civil Service Commission, once described the merit system as, ‘in its essence, as democratic and American as the common school system itself.’ During a little more than seven years in the White House he increased the classified rolls from 106,000 to 234,000.

President Taft’s famous executive order of October 15,1912, placed 36,236 fourth-class postmasters under Civil Service at one swoop.

Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order on March 31, 1917, making mandatory the nomination of the highest ranking candidate in an examination for any presidential postmastership.

Herbert Hoover’s executive order of April 27, 1931, creating the Federal Council of Personnel Administration, was directed to a determination of ‘ the extent to which the government service does offer, or can be made to offer, a partial or a permanent career.’

Through all these advances, however, the tradition of a post-office director selected primarily on the basis of political considerations has prevailed unscathed. Few and feeble have been the assaults upon this citadel of spoils.

Not every postmaster general has brought grave embarrassment upon his chief. There always has been considerable variation in the political admixture in the commonplace business of dispatching the mails. Yet the fact remains that the largest unit of the Federal establishment has remained constantly in essentially political hands.

Why the principal political mentor of each successive President should preside over the Post Office never has been explained or defended, save euphemistically from time to time in terms of the political necessities of patronage. If this theory of political realism were true, we should also have political intimates of the President as Secretary of the Treasury and Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board. The logic is the same.

As a matter of fact, I think, the explanation is easier than that. Our political tradition in the Post Office is so much with us that the enormity of the folly simply does not register longer upon the national consciousness. Only a shocking scandal arouses the country to the dangers of postal spoils.

The excessive costs of this system we have no way of knowing. In reviewing the administrative corruption of the spoils crisis in the early 1880’s Foulke offered the consolation: ‘Such is the vitality of republican institutions that they could live and thrive if the service were twice as bad as it then was and cost twice as much.’ But the thought oders little assurance to a generation which is witnessing a comprehensive policy of spoils for the victor such as Mr. Foulke never saw.

Some twenty-five years ago the late John Wanamaker proposed, half in jest, to lease the Post Office establishment at several millions a year. Charles G. Dawes, after his experience as Director of the Budget, once said he could pay $25,000,000 annually for the domestic mail monopoly and show a handsome profit. In the Challenge to Liberty, Herbert Hoover wrote: —

That the government should control the mails for reasons of confidence is not denied, but that private enterprise could collect and deliver the mail for three quarters of the present cost is obvious to anyone competent to study the subject. One thing is a certainty: that if all industry, through the inescapable play of political and bureaucratic action, were reduced to the efficiency of the post office, we should fail within a few years to produce sufficient to feed, clothe, and care for our people.

All of which brings us, as I see it, to the point offered by Senator Norris in the Cody debates supra: ‘Mr. President, it would not take an act of Congress to remedy the evil of which I am complaining in this case. It could be entirely remedied if the Department wished to place the Post Office upon a business basis instead of a job-hunting basis.’

The truth is plain before us. The Post Office includes so overwhelming a proportion of governmental employees that the virus of spoils, endemic there, must poison the whole body of our government. So long as the vicious custom persists of appointing as Postmaster General the man responsible for party success at the polls, the spoilsman’s flag is nailed to the top of the mast.

  1. Department’s official estimate submitted to the House through the Bureau of the Budget.
  2. Exclusive of mail carried free for Post Office Department. — AUTHOR
  3. Annual Report Postmaster General, December 30, 1935, p. 49. House Document No. 314, 74th Congress, 2nd Session. — AUTHOR