Who is the real loser in the USPS mess?
The crisis in the U.S. Postal Service is real, despite what critics like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) claim is a “false narrative” and a “political hit piece.” Yet with newly-installed U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on the job for a little over two months, many people remain confused — and even overwhelmed — by what’s going on.
Here’s an attempt to sort it all out — postal pun intended.
The most important message from DeJoy’s testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Friday, Aug. 21, and the House Oversight Committee Monday, Aug. 24, is this: “Request your ballots early. Vote early.” He repeatedly pledged that the USPS is prepared to handle all election-related mail.
At the same time, DeJoy admitted that the coronavirus “has had an impact on our employee availability.” Postal workers are getting sick. Yet DeJoy claimed that, despite widespread reporting to the contrary, he didn’t cut back hours or overtime. Instead, he professed to have implemented changes that will be the “catalyst for significant improvement in cost, performance and growth.” He did eventually admit that he took steps to cut back on extra trips by mail carriers.
On Saturday, the House passed a bill that would provide $25 billion to bail out the Postal Service, which has labored under legislatively-inspired financial hardship for years. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is refusing to move the bill through the Senate. A similar measure has been languishing on his desk along with the rest of the HEROES Act that would have supplemented coronavirus relief — including funding to the states to facilitate the November election amidst a pandemic — since May. Senate Republicans aren’t willing to offer financial relief for the constitutionally-grounded USPS even though the private airline industry hastily received $25 billion in funds to pay beleaguered employees.
Although everyone agrees that the Postal Service needs some form of legislative intervention, DeJoy and congressional Republicans appear to be simultaneously taking the position that Americans who are experiencing unusual delays in mail delivery are either hallucinating or making things up.
This is yet another Trump-era exercise in gaslighting the American public.
Here are some established facts. Basic common sense can tell us what to make of them.
· Over 600 high-speed sorting machines have been removed from USPS facilities under DeJoy, including hundreds in swing states. DeJoy testified that these removals were planned before he took office, but he adamantly refused members’ pleas that he put them back in advance of the election. Attorneys General in Maine and Washington have filed suit against DeJoy over the removal of processing equipment and other changes.
· More than 550,000 primary absentee ballots were rejected over the summer, far outpacing 2016 statistics. A major reason for rejecting ballots was that they arrived too late through the USPS. Approximately 180 million Americans are eligible to vote by mail in November, and according to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz) in the Senate hearing, 85 to 95 percent are expected to do so this fall.
· In July, under DeJoy’s leadership, the USPS sent letters to 46 states and Washington, D.C., warning that it cannot guarantee that all ballots cast by mail in November will arrive in time to be counted. DeJoy indicated in his testimony that the letters were routine and that election mail will be prioritized this fall.
· On Aug. 7, DeJoy issued an internal memo entitled “Organizational Restructure,” which displaced or reassigned 23 postal executives, including two charged with overseeing day-to-day operations.
· On Aug. 12, the USPS issued a glossy report on its recent performance, showing an approximate 8 percent decrease since March in processing the mail from scan to delivery. The most precipitous decline occurred in July, just about a month after DeJoy assumed office. When pressed on why he didn’t turn over the document to Congress, he didn’t provide a straight answer.
· There have been numerous reports of unprecedented delays in mail delivery, including by people who rely on mail to timely deliver medical prescriptions. Residents of a Minneapolis housing complex stopped receiving mail for over a week just before a primary election. The USPS blamed the delay on social distancing measures, even though just three out of 567 residents had tested positive for COVID-19.
· On Aug. 18, DeJoy issued an official statement acknowledging “longstanding operational initiatives . . . that have been raised as areas of concern as the nation prepares to hold an election in the midst of a devastating pandemic,” and announcing that “I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded” — belying his testimony that no serious changes were afoot in the first place.
· DeJoy complained repeatedly in both hearings about the financial crisis in the USPS, but when specifically asked if it needs additional money from Congress to help ensure a smooth election process, he said no.
President Trump has called the USPS a “joke” and a “loser”— threatening long before DeJoy took office that he would veto any financial aid for the Postal Service. He has also repeatedly claimed that mail-in balloting could lead to “the greatest rigged election in history.” DeJoy admitted in his House testimony that he has spoken to the Trump campaign since taking office.
The question the USPS mess raises, once again, is an old one for the Trump administration, and it’s about accountability. If the USPS fails to deliver on DeJoy’s promises, what are the consequences? If hundreds of thousands of people are disenfranchised due to mail delays in November, subsequent congressional hearings and supplemental funding will mean nothing. The consequences of a failed election are too catastrophic to ponder.
And if mail-in ballots are timely counted after November 3 but Trump continues to falsely claim that certain votes-by-mail are fraudulent (presumably not those of himself and his wife, Melania, who requested mail-in-ballots this year), will our polarized society tolerate a methodical and fair approach to deciding who takes office on Jan. 20, 2021, or will mobs again take to the streets in protest?
Unfortunately, Congress’s emergency hearings on DeJoy’s performance and alleged conflicts of interest will produce no answers — only more confusion and gaslighting. The losers are the American people.
Kimberly Wehle is a professor at University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the books “How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” and “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter @kimwehle.
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