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In Senate testimony, USPS chief says ballots are top priority, admits cost-cutting measures caused mail delays

Aug. 21, 2020 Updated Fri., Aug. 21, 2020 at 9:35 p.m.

In this image from video, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy holds a chart showing a decrease in extra trips by postal workers, one of the cost-cutting measures he admitted have caused delays in mail delivery. The Postal Service chief testified in a virtual Senate hearing Friday.  (Image from livestream, courtesy Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee)
In this image from video, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy holds a chart showing a decrease in extra trips by postal workers, one of the cost-cutting measures he admitted have caused delays in mail delivery. The Postal Service chief testified in a virtual Senate hearing Friday. (Image from livestream, courtesy Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee)

WASHINGTON – Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told senators Friday that election mail remains the U.S. Postal Service’s highest priority, while defending cost-cutting measures that he conceded have caused mail delays.

The special hearing, held virtually with most senators away from the Capitol for Congress’s summer recess, gave lawmakers their first opportunity to publicly question the former logistics executive since he took the helm of the USPS in June and began a sweeping reorganization of the agency. It also highlighted Congress’s failure to address the Postal Service’s longstanding financial woes, which DeJoy said were the reason for the overhaul he made official Aug. 7.

“I want to assure this committee and the American public,” DeJoy said, “that the Postal Service is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation’s election mail securely and on time. This sacred duty is my No. 1 priority between now and Election Day.”

DeJoy has come under intense scrutiny recently amid several developments at the Postal Service, which Republicans in the hearing characterized as overblown. Democrats, however, suspect an effort to undermine the agency and harm mail-in voting, which President Donald Trump has railed against ahead of the Nov. 3 vote.

“Maybe it’s just a coincidence,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., after an indelible moment when technical problems caused him to shout a profanity over the video feed. “But here’s why we’re so skeptical: We’ve got a president who doesn’t want to have vote-by-mail. We’ve got a president who’d like to suppress the vote.”

Already facing COVID-related staffing problems and an influx of packages fueled by pandemic-induced online shopping, reports emerged in mid-July that DeJoy was curtailing the use of overtime and extra trips to deliver mail, causing delays. Then, Aug. 9, The Spokesman-Review reported the top USPS lawyer had sent a letter warning Secretary of State Kim Wyman of “a risk that some ballots will not be returned by mail in time to be counted.”

The Washington Post subsequently reported 46 states and the District of Columbia had received similar letters, which pointed out that the states’ election laws allow voters to register too close to Election Day for the USPS to guarantee their ballots would be delivered in time to be counted.

The agency’s delivery standards have not changed since 2015 – nor has its practice of prioritizing election mail, DeJoy said Friday – but the letters caused alarm in the context of delayed mail and Trump’s opposition to mail-in voting.

Other moves at the Postal Service have raised concerns despite being set in motion before DeJoy’s tenure began, including the removal of blue postal boxes and mail-sorting machines from processing facilities, “a process that I was unaware about” until reports caused public outcry, DeJoy told the senators. He said sorting machines that already were removed are “not needed” and will not be replaced.

On Tuesday, shortly after The Spokesman-Review reported the USPS would stop processing outgoing mail from Yakima and Wenatchee, DeJoy announced he was suspending some of the moves that had drawn the public’s ire. But on Friday, he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee he would not reverse one change that he acknowledged has caused delays.

After spending his first three weeks on the job studying the organization, DeJoy said, one of his first moves was to enforce a transportation schedule for trucks carrying mail between cities.

“The only change that I made,” DeJoy said, “was that the trucks leave on time. Theoretically, everyone should have got their mail faster.”

But the change meant trucks started leaving on time whether or not the mail was ready, leaving some mail to be picked up the next day. DeJoy told the senators it has taken longer than he expected for the system to adapt to the new rule.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “processing within the plants was not fully aligned with this established schedule, so we had some delays in the mail. Our recovery process in this should have been a few days and it’s amounted to be a few weeks.”

Critics say DeJoy, a major GOP donor who had never worked for the Postal Service, is trying to force change on an organization he doesn’t fully understand. Don Cheney, a 37-year USPS veteran who now works for the Puget Sound Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union, said the agency has long relied on some flexibility in truck departure times when mail isn’t ready to be loaded.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” said Cheney, who started with the Postal Service in 1966, “but trucks have always had a 15-minute leeway. It’s crazy to send trucks away without all the mail. Only somebody who’s never worked in the post office would give an order like that.”

DeJoy defended the changes Friday, brandishing charts showing sharp declines in late and extra trips since he implemented the changes. In response, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the committee’s top Democrat, held up his own chart, showing a corresponding drop in on-time mail delivery in the eastern U.S.

Peters asked if Tuesday’s announcement meant the USPS would suspend the changes eliminating late trips and curtailing overtime, another move DeJoy reportedly made but has never confirmed publicly. The postmaster general replied that the transportation schedule would not change and said overtime “has not been curtailed by me or the leadership team.”

The Republicans largely defended the reforms, with committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., telling DeJoy, “I think you should be commended for this type of initiative, not condemned.”

“There’s been a lot of misinformation out there and I like getting to the facts,” said Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, “and one of the facts I’ve learned this morning is that you started 67 days ago, and much of what we’ve been talking about in the media this week, including the blue boxes and the sorting machines, that happened before you got there and it was part of a plan.”

“I also know that the long-term financial picture for the Postal Service is not pretty,” Portman continued, “and that’s not really something that a postmaster general can do much about. It requires legislation. … A lot of this comes back onto Congress not doing its job in terms of the longer-term financial picture.”

The Postal Service, which uses no taxpayer dollars, has lost roughly $80 billion since 2007, but while its revenue has suffered from a decline in first-class mail volume, most of those losses are due to a law Congress passed in 2006 that requires the agency to pay more than $5 billion each year for 75 years of employee health benefits. No other government entity or private company faces such a requirement.

A May report by the Government Accountability Office found that more than $47 billion of the Postal Service’s debt is due to that onerous mandate, which the House tried to repeal by passing a bill in February with the support of all the chamber’s Democrats and nearly half its GOP members.

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside were among the 87 Republicans who supported the legislation, but the bill has so far stalled in the Senate.

Other legislation seeks to inject funds into the insolvent agency. A bipartisan bill introduced in July by Sens. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, would provide up to $25 billion to cover costs related to COVID-19. Congress provided a $10 billion loan to the USPS as part of coronavirus relief legislation passed in March, but the agency and the Treasury Department didn’t agree to terms for the loan until late July.

The House will return early from its summer recess to vote Saturday on a bill that would give the USPS $25 billion without the conditions imposed by the Senate bill, while also rolling back any changes made by the agency since the beginning of the year. Democrats are expected to pass the legislation, but it is unlikely to get traction in the GOP-controlled Senate.

In a statement, North Idaho GOP Rep. Russ Fulcher said lawmakers should do more than bail out the embattled agency.

“For two centuries, the USPS served as the main form of communication for Americans,” Fulcher said. “In the last two decades, new technology has changed the way we communicate, reducing revenue to the USPS. As we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that Congress should address the long-term needs of the USPS outside of emergency aid legislation.”

DeJoy also will testify before a House committee Monday, in what is likely to be a more hostile environment in the Democrat-led lower chamber.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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