Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, pressed by senators over mail delivery disruptions, said Friday he was unaware of changes that sparked a public uproar, but his responses raised fresh questions about how the Postal Service will ensure timely delivery of ballots for the November election.
DeJoy told senators he has zero plans to restore blue mailboxes and sorting equipment that have been removed, saying they are “not needed.” He did say that election mail would continue to be prioritized for delivery as in years past.
But while DeJoy distanced himself from President Donald Trump's complaints about mail-in ballots that are expected to surge in the coronavirus pandemic, he told senators could not yet provide a detailed plan about how he will ensure on-time election mail delivery.
The U.S. Postal Service also launched an Election Mail website on the day of the hearing with information and resources ahead of the the election.
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DeJoy said he was "extremely, highly confident" the Postal Service “is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation’s election mail securely and on-time.” He said that was his "No. 1 priority between now and Election Day.”
That assertion appeared to contradict recent letters the Postal Service sent 46 states warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted. DeJoy told lawmakers the notices, which were sent before his appointment, were meant to educate states on mail processing times so that election boards could set feasible deadlines for ballot requests. He warned if timelines were too close to election day, the likelihood voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots would increase.
The new postmaster general, a Trump donor and ally who took the job in June, has faced a public outcry over changes and delivery delays. Democrats noted his cost-cutting initiatives will only compound concerns of mail delivery disruptions in November.
With mounting pressure, DeJoy promised this week to postpone any further changes until after the election, saying he wanted to avoid even the perception of interference. A number of blue mailboxes have been removed, back-of-shop sorting equipment has been shut down and overtime hours have been limited.
But DeJoy told senators he has no plans to restore the equipment, saying it's “not needed.” And he stood by a new rule that limits late delivery trips, which several postal workers have said is a major cause of delivery delays. He vowed more changes are coming to postal operations after November.
They peppered him with questions about the Trump administration’s push to starve the Postal Service of funds to process ballots for November. Trump had said he wants to block agency funds to make it harder for the Postal Service to handle the expected surge of mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 crisis.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said the public’s concern is understandable, particularly given Trump’s efforts to stop universal mail-in ballots. Many states are encouraging mail-in voting in response to voters' pandemic-related fears of going to crowded polling centers on Election Day.
Trump has said he wants to block agency emergency funding that would help the service handle a great increase in mail-in ballots.
At Friday's hearing, DeJoy said he'd had “no idea” equipment was being removed until the public outcry.
Now that it's widely known, Democrats pressed him for his plan to ensure election mail and ballots arrive on time.
“Do you have a more detailed plan?” demanded Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, asking for it by Sunday.
“I don’t think we’ll have a complete plan by Sunday night,” DeJoy replied, acknowledging it was just being formed.
DeJoy flatly told senators he has had few conversations with White House officials.
Grilled by Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., DeJoy acknowledged he did no studies of how the changes he was making would impact seniors, veterans and working families.
“Is there any analysis?” she demanded.
He said his analysis showed delivery would be improved.
The top Democrat on the panel, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, said DeJoy owed the nation an “apology” for the widespread mail disruptions since he took over the service.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, defended the postmaster and dismissed the Democratic claims of election “sabotage.”
“So this isn’t some devious plot on your part,” Johnson said.
The hearing was held remotely as Congress is on recess and lawmakers have been conducting much of their business during the coronavirus outbreak in virtual settings.
The outcry over mail delays and warnings of political interference have put the Postal Service at the center of the nation's tumultuous election year, with Americans rallying around one of the nation's oldest and more popular institutions.
With mounting pressure, DeJoy abruptly reversed course this week, vowing to postpone any further changes until after the election, saying he wanted to avoid even the “perception” of any interference. Blue mailboxes were being removed, back-of-shop sorting equipment shutdown and overtime hours kept in check.
It is not uncommon for the USPS to decommission sorters and data published in annual Postal Regulatory Commission reports show that dozens, sometimes hundreds, of machines are taken offline every year, The Washington Post reports. However, DeJoy's planned removal of 671 machines, or 13% of its inventory, is far greater than the 3-5% of equipment decommissioned in previous years.
An internal directive to postal staff said, “They are not to reconnect/reinstall machines,” according to an email obtained by The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, attorneys general in Pennsylvania, California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Washington D.C., filed another lawsuit on Friday, alleging the postmaster bypassed regulators and violated rules requiring that the agency “maintain an efficient system of collection, sorting, and delivery of the mail nationwide.”
House Democrats are pushing ahead with a rare Saturday session to pass legislation that would prohibit the actions and send $25 billion to shore up postal operations. Some 20 states, along with voting rights advocates, have sued to reverse the changes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is eyeing a $10 billion postal rescue as part of the next COVID-19 relief package. The White House has said it would be open to more postal funding as part of a broader virus aid package.
The Postal Service is struggling financially under a decline in mail volume, rising costs from the coronavirus pandemic and a rare, and some say cumbersome congressional requirement to fund in advance its retiree health care benefits.
For many, the Postal Service provides a lifeline, sending not just cards and letters, but prescription drug delivery, financial statements and other items that are especially needed by mail during the pandemic.
The choice of DeJoy to lead the service, the first postmaster general in nearly two decades who is not a career postal employee, is coming under increased scrutiny.
The postal service board of governors, appointed by Trump, selected DeJoy in May to take the job. A GOP donor, he previously owned a logistics business that was a longtime Postal Service contractor. He maintains significant financial stakes in companies that do business or compete with the agency, raising conflict of interest questions.
In a statement, the Postal Service said DeJoy has made all required financial disclosures but that he might have to divest some holdings if conflicts arise.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said this week he has asked for an accounting of how DeJoy was selected, but was previously told by the board of governors some information remains confidential. Schumer had said Mnuchin played a role in the process. Mnuchin denied the claim in a letter to Schumer, saying he had no hand in “recruiting or suggesting” DeJoy for the job.
“In fact, I was surprised to learn that Mr. DeJoy was a candidate for the position,” Mnuchin wrote in a letter late Thursday to Schumer.
But multiple sources tell NBC News that Mnuchin held a series of one-on-one meetings with members of the board of governors and discussed the need to "move quickly" on a selection.
Tim Stretton, a policy analyst for the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said any White House or Treasury involvement with the Postal Service would be a breach of its charter as an independent, nonpolitical public entity.
Dave Williams, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors who resigned in May, told members of the House Progressive Caucus on Thursday that Mnuchin had been actively engaged in the activities of the board, including allegedly having a hand in the confirmation process of board nominees, according to NBC News.
Williams told lawmakers that he resigned from the board, in part, over DeJoy's selection, and because he believed the White House was taking extraordinary steps to turn the independent agency into a “political tool.”
He said, "I was convinced that its independent role had been marginalized.”
DeJoy is expected to testify before the House on Monday.