The week of Aug. 16 was a unique week in two respects. Not only did the Democrats hold the first-ever all-virtual national political convention, but House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget 'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.) called the House back from its August recess for an emergency session on Saturday, Aug. 22, to consider the “Delivering for America Act” (which, fortunately, does not create another clever acronym). The purpose of the bill (H.R. 8015) is “to maintain prompt and reliable postal services during the COVID-19 health emergency.”
It came to light earlier in the month that the Postal Service was attempting to produce huge cost savings, in part by eliminating a large number of mail sorting machines and hundreds of blue mail drop boxes. Critics alleged the moves were causing massive delays in mail deliveries, though the pandemic slow-downs were also a contributing factor. Moreover, President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE had previously publicly stated that he opposed election aid to the states and a postal bailout because that would only increase the number of mail-in ballots which he maintains leads to widespread vote fraud, although there is no evidence to support such claims.
On Aug. 11, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyOvernight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Oversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog MORE (D-N.Y.) introduced the postal protection bill that was designed to restore Postal Service services and operations to the levels in effect on Jan. 1, 2020. The bill was not subject to committee hearings or a bill markup and report, nor did it have any co-sponsors. At the behest of the Democratic leadership, Rules Committee Chairman James McGovernJames (Jim) Patrick McGovernBipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Journalism watchdog files criminal complaint against Saudi crown prince Democrats call for relief package to waive taxes on unemployment benefits MORE (D-Mass.) called a committee hearing for Friday, Aug. 21, to consider a special rule for the bill. Meantime, a Rules Committee Print (116-61) was prepared that tweaked the two-page bill into a five-page measure, including the addition of a $25-billion supplemental appropriation previously requested by the Postal Service board of governors and included in the HEROES Act passed by the House in May, but still languishing in the Senate.
The Friday Rules Committee hearing featured Chairwoman Maloney, her ranking minority committee member James ComerJames (Jamie) R. ComerOvernight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France Oversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog Republican requesting data, notes, emails in intelligence report on COVID-19 origins MORE (R-Ky.), Reps. Stephen LynchStephen Francis LynchOvernight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' Overnight Defense: Ex-Pentagon chief defends Capitol attack response as GOP downplays violence | Austin, Biden confer with Israeli counterparts amid conflict with Hamas | Lawmakers press Pentagon officials on visas for Afghan partners MORE (D-Mass.), and Michael BurgessMichael Clifton BurgessOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court rules that pipeline can seize land from New Jersey | Study: EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas development | Kevin McCarthy sets up task forces on climate, other issues Texas Republicans condemn state Democrats for response to official calling Scott an 'Oreo' Americans have decided to give professionals a chance MORE (R-Texas). Notwithstanding the paucity of witnesses, the hearing went on for about six-hours with a mix of speeches, lectures and questions. The majority pointed repeatedly to the toll late mail deliveries was taking on seniors receiving their medicines and benefit checks, and the potential distortions in election results if absentee ballots are not received on time. The minority downplayed any crisis and especially questioned the need for the $25 billion bailout since the Postal Service reportedly had $14 billion cash-on-hand that will fund the service through most of 2021, plus another $10 billion line-of-credit, if needed. Republicans asked how $25 billion was to be spent when no plan had been presented for its allocation.
One of the most troubling aspects of the rushed process was that the Democrats claimed there has not been time for a committee hearing and markup given the emergency nature of the situation, and yet the committee had scheduled a hearing with Postmaster General Louis DeJoyLouis DeJoyWatchdog says USPS regularly cheats workers of pay FreedomWorks misfires on postal reform Postal Service to slow certain mail deliveries starting in October MORE on Monday, Aug. 24, two days after the House was scheduled to act on the bill. (The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee did hear from DeJoy the day before the House vote.) DeJoy told the Senate committee Friday, and the House committee the following Monday, that while he would suspend the cost-cutting measures until after the election, he had no plans to restore the mail sorting machines and mailboxes already removed. He added that he did intend to honor the tradition of treating mail-in ballots the same as if they were first class mail to expedite their receipt by election officials.
The Rules Committee produced the anticipated no-amendment special rule on Friday. The rule self-executed the adoption of the Rules Committee print as a substitute, and included a motion to strike, agreed to by Maloney, a provision not in her introduced bill that would have allowed for “a private right of action” whereby “any person harmed by a violation of the act could bring a civil action against the Postal Service in an appropriate district court.” (There was no time for a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate on what the legal fees for that leadership-added right to sue might have cost).
The rule also waived points of order against the bill, including waiving a rule adopted by Democrats at the beginning of this Congress which bars consideration under a special rule of a bill that was not subject to a committee hearing or markup.
On Saturday, the House easily adopted the special rule and the previous question by identical party-line votes of 230 to 171, with 69 absent members voting by proxy voting –twice as many as voted by proxy in late July.
On the bill itself, while the Republican motion to recommit to further amend the bill was rejected, 182 to 223 (with eight Democrats and no Republicans breaking ranks), the vote on final passage of the bill was 257 to 150, with all Democrats voting in favor along with 26 Republicans. Again, 69 proxy votes were cast, all but one of which were by Democrats, while 24 members (all Republicans) were listed as not voting.
What all that means is that only 336 and 338 members, respectively, out of 430 currently sitting members, were actually present and voting. The other 90 plus members boycotted the emergency session in favor of continuing with their August vacations, or at least socially long-distancing from the D.C. COVID-19 hotspot.
As the Washington Post reported on Sunday, “In bringing the House back to vote, Pelosi faced pressure from an increasing number of her Democratic colleagues to also consider legislation to restore unemployment benefits that expired last month.” Talks between the White House and congressional Democratic leaders broke down as Congress was leaving town at the end of July.
The White House indicated it was open to enacting a short-term, incremental fix, but Pelosi rejected any piecemeal approach –-at least, that is, until she scheduled action on the targeted postal bailout bill. Congress is not scheduled to return until Sept. 14, though more surprises could unfold in the interim.
Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.