Postal Service bill unveiled in House as Democrats ponder sweeteners

Endangered House Democrats seek to broaden scope of bill to include additional coronavirus-related aid

Democrats want to ensure that full service is restored at the U.S. Postal Service and to also shore up the cash-strapped agency’s finances. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Democrats want to ensure that full service is restored at the U.S. Postal Service and to also shore up the cash-strapped agency’s finances. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 19, 2020 at 11:11am, Updated at 12:37pm

House leaders posted revised text of legislation the chamber plans to take up on Saturday that would provide the Postal Service with $25 billion to cover revenue losses, reverse service and operational changes implemented earlier this year, and require that all election-related mail, including ballots, be treated as first-class mail to ensure priority delivery.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said Tuesday he would postpone until after the November elections several changes intended to cut costs, such as restrictions on overtime pay and reduced post office hours.

Democrats want to ensure that full service is restored and also shore up the cash-strapped agency’s finances, but Senate Republicans say they’ll only agree to take up Postal Service relief if additional coronavirus-related aid is attached.

[Scaled-back GOP aid package would write off $10 billion postal loan]

Some Democrats are pushing for the House to vote on more than just the Postal Service measure when they interrupt their recess and return to work this weekend. There have been calls to vote on unemployment insurance and other economic relief measures to help individuals affected by coronavirus business closures.

On Wednesday, 117 House Democrats, led by leaders of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, sent a letter to party leaders urging them to take up unemployment insurance legislation authored by Donald S. Beyer Jr. of Virginia and Derek Kilmer of Washington. The measure would renew the lapsed $600 weekly jobless aid supplement through the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency and transition to a tiered system of benefits tied to national and state unemployment rates.

‘Simplified, straightforward’ package

In a separate Wednesday letter, Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring up a “simplified, straightforward COVID-19 relief package” when the chamber reconvenes on Saturday. Axne wrote that the measure should contain “economic relief, protections against eviction and financial ruin, and funding for our schools, health centers, and critical industries.”

Axne also signed the New Democrats’ letter.

Pelosi has so far resisted calls for the Postal Service package to be opened up, arguing that the chamber spoke in May by passing a more than $3.4 trillion COVID-19 relief measure that has stalled in talks with the White House and Senate Republicans. Pelosi also says she doesn’t want to give Republicans a reason to vote against a Postal Service bill by tacking on unrelated provisions.

“There are people who said, ‘When you do the bill, put this on. Put that on. Put this on.’ I said, ‘You know what, I don’t want to give the Republicans any reason to vote against this,’” Pelosi said at a Politico event Tuesday. “Because we want this to become law. We want the president to sign it.”

But House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn hinted Wednesday that additional legislation could be taken up this weekend, beyond the postal bill. “The House is coming back to Washington on Saturday, and we’re going to vote on the new package. It will include the post office and other things as well,” the South Carolina Democratrn said at an event hosted by The Hill.

A Clyburn spokesperson later clarified that the House is “only voting on the postal bill on Saturday.”

Axne, who voted against the $3.4 trillion House measure in May, said both parties’ leadership should restart negotiations on a broader aid package.

“This is not a time for political games. We cannot say take it or leave it, because we know very well at this point the Senate has already left it,” wrote Axne, who flipped a GOP district in 2018 that had backed President Donald Trump two years earlier. The freshman lawmaker is one of 28 House Democrats in reelection races considered competitive by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

The House Rules Committee will meet Friday at 11 a.m. to set parameters for Saturday’s floor debate.

Private right of action, postmarking

The revised postal measure introduced by House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., would require postal services and operations that were in place on Jan. 1, 2020, to be restored and maintained through 2021 or the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, whichever comes later. That would include undoing changes to overtime pay policies, service standards and closures of post offices or processing facilities.

The legislation also includes a “private right of action” provision, which would allow an individual harmed by a violation of the bill to bring civil action against the Postal Service.

Of the $25 billion included in the measure, $15 million would go to the office of the Postal Service inspector general, the independent watchdog that can investigate the agency.

More voters than ever before are expected to utilize mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic and tumult at the Postal Service has led to concern about ballots and other election mail arriving in time to be counted.

The legislation would also require the service to postmark, with date of receipt, all election mail.

A July 2020 Postal Service inspector general’s report found that many mail-in ballots in the Wisconsin primary were not postmarked when they should have been, in part because some postal workers were unaware that ballots are supposed to be treated differently than other postage-paid or bulk mail.

[Post office concerns highlighted at Senate hearing on elections amid COVID-19]

Some states classify election mail, including absentee ballot applications and ballots themselves as bulk, or marketing mail, a cheaper and slower alternative to first-class mail.

First-class mail takes between two and five days to be received, while marketing mail takes between three and 10 days to be received, according to the Postal Service. Marketing mail carries about one-third of the cost than the faster priority classification.

But for a long time, postal workers have informally treated election mail as first-class items and afforded them the speed their 20-cent bulk price point ordinarily would not allow. The Postal Service has warned some states that without the official first-class markings, applications and ballots may not be expedited this year.

The House Democrats’ bill would codify this informal prioritization of election mail.

DeJoy will testify Friday at a hearing on the Postal Service before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and on Monday at the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.