A demonstrator places an envelope outside the home of postmaster-general Louis DeJoy in Washington, the US, on August 15 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ERIC LEE
A demonstrator places an envelope outside the home of postmaster-general Louis DeJoy in Washington, the US, on August 15 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ERIC LEE

Washington — US President Donald Trump’s postal service chief tried to neutralise complaints by suspending his operational changes, but he failed to silence accusations that he is hampering the agency’s ability to handle voting by mail.

Postmaster-general Louis DeJoy’s retreat followed mounting pressure from Democrats, including an August 5 exchange with top lawmakers that Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer described as “heated”. Congress scheduled two hearings with DeJoy in the coming days and the House plans to vote on a postal-funding measure on Saturday.

At heart are concerns that Trump, running behind Democrat Joe Biden in polls, is mounting a politically driven campaign to hobble the US postal service. The president has repeatedly claimed — without evidence — that widespread mail-in voting leads to fraud; diminished capacity to deliver ballots could complicate vote-counting. Trump has also said the agency, in effect, subsidises deliveries for Amazon, a long-time target of the president’s ire.

DeJoy said on Tuesday that he was suspending removals of mail-sorting machines and blue collection boxes in various cities, moves that had been billed as overdue cost-cutting. He pledged that retail hours wouldn’t change, mail-processing facilities wouldn’t be shut and equipment would remain where it was. “Overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed,” he said.

But it remains unclear if any of his recent moves would be reversed.

“There are unanswered questions that certainly need to be clarified,” said former deputy postmaster-general Ronald Stroman, who was appointed in 2011 and resigned earlier this year. “You don’t want to reduce your flexibility ahead of a national election when you will have an exponential increase in the amount of absentee ballots,” he said on a call with reporters hosted by the Democracy Fund, where he is a senior fellow.

Besides clearing up the issue about what overtime “as needed”  might mean and whether changes already made will be reversed, Stroman urged a commitment to processing and delivering all the ballots it receives each day.

Democrat lawmakers were even more vocal, setting the stage for what might be a rocky pair of hearings in coming days. DeJoy appears at the Senate’s homeland security and governmental affairs committee on Friday and the House committee on oversight and reform on Monday.

Saturday vote

“We want to roll it back,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the proposed changes during an interview with Politico’s Playbook on Tuesday. She said the House will proceed with a vote on Saturday on a $25bn special funding package for the postal service and prohibits any overhaul of operations or the level of service compared with what was in place on January 1 2020.

“DeJoy cannot put the genie back in the bottle,” said representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who has helped lead the House’s oversight of the post office as a sub-committee chief.

Senator Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the panel hosting DeJoy on Friday, asked whether DeJoy will ensure the return of sorting machines already removed, and pressed for details of changes already made.

DeJoy’s links to Trump — he contributed to the 2016 campaign and gave $100,000 to the inaugural committee — have highlighted the concerns. Republicans frame DeJoy’s motives as consistent with efforts back in the Obama administration to put the postal service on a more sustainable financial footing.

‘Perception issue’

“This is totally a perception issue that the postmaster-general is addressing” by suspending his reforms, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said on Tuesday. “President Trump, at no time, has instructed or directed the post office to cut back on overtime, or any other operational decision that would slow things down.”

DeJoy in a statement on Tuesday assured: “We will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards.” This will be “our number one priority between now and Election Day”. 

“It’s shameful that Democrats continue to manufacture baseless and wildly irresponsible conspiracy theories,” said James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the House oversight committee.

Michael Plunkett, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, a trade group for businesses that deal with the postal service including FedEx and United Parcel Service, and a former postal service executive, said, “I don’t see why” DeJoy’s reforms would affect mail-in voting. “The post office should have capacity to handle events.” 

State lawsuits

A number of Democrat attorneys-general spanning the country aren’t taking that for granted. Those for Washington and Pennsylvania outlined plans for separate, multi-state lawsuits that would seek to halt operational changes.

More than a dozen other states have signed on to the effort, including California, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Nevada. No Republican attorney-general has participated.

“By interfering with the postal service, President Trump is putting both our democracy and people’s health at risk,” Massachusetts attorney-general Maura Healey said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are suing to ensure the integrity of our electoral process and to make sure each and every vote is counted during this election.”

Rural worries

Beyond the election, there are deeper concerns that the postal service, the authorisation of which was enshrined in the US constitution, could pare back its presence in rural areas — where private companies can be less likely to reach.

“The service commitment to rural America was already diminished,” said former Democrat senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. “The post office is a high-ranking infrastructure concern of rural voters.”

Lee Moak, a member of the postal service’s board of governors, said in a blog post that he had received almost 40,000 e-mails since Friday. Moak said he appreciates “how devastating it can be when vital governmental infrastructure struggles to support its citizens.”

The National Grange, an organisation that represents rural interests, thanked DeJoy for suspending the changes. “Postmaster DeJoy heard the outcry of people from all across the country and political spectrum,” Grange president Betsy Huber said in an e-mailed statement. “The nation needs to move forward through the pandemic and this election cycle with certainty.”

Bloomberg

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