Postmaster general: ‘Dramatic’ changes ahead, but confidence in election mail is strong

Louis DeJoy says $25 billion infusion wouldn't fix agency's problems

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in the Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in the Capitol on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
By Katherine Tully-McManus
Posted August 21, 2020 at 1:02pm

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday that post offices will continue to prioritize ballots and expressed support for voting by mail, but he previewed "dramatic" changes planned for after the election.

The embattled Postal Service leader answered lawmakers' questions about mail delays widely attributed to cost-cutting policies put in place in recent weeks. The slowdowns have spurred concerns about delivery and receipt of ballots for the November elections, when a record number of votes are expected to be cast by mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeJoy said he has "voted by mail for a number of years" and plans to do so again this fall. He offered an endorsement of the same process that President Donald Trump has said leads to massive voter fraud, a claim that remains unsubstantiated. DeJoy urged the public to "vote early."

“I’m going to vote by mail myself,” the Trump megadonor said under questioning from Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who also said he plans to vote by mail.

When pressed to assert that he would not require state and local governments to send out ballots using more expensive first-class mail, DeJoy said the Postal Service would deploy “processes and procedures to advance the election mail, in some cases ahead of 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 costs about one-third of the faster priority classification.

Postal workers have for many years informally treated election mail as first class items and afforded them the speed their 20-cent bulk price point ordinarily would not receive. DeJoy promised that postal workers would continue the process of prioritization and would not issue special charges for election-related mail.

“I think the American public should be able to vote by mail,” DeJoy said.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney asked DeJoy whether he was confident that ballots mailed back within seven days of the election would be received in time to be counted.

"Extremely, highly confident," said DeJoy. "We will scour every plant each night leading up to Election Day."

In recent weeks, the Postal Service has warned 46 states that it couldn’t guarantee that ballots mailed before Election Day would arrive in time to be counted because of deadlines they’ve set.

Earlier this week, DeJoy suspended operational changes ahead of the election under pressure from Democrats. He told lawmakers Friday that since he took the top job in June, the service has removed 700 collection boxes as part of regular reallocation.

Delays acknowledged

Across the country, the Postal Service has decommissioned sorting machines and removed some mail boxes as part of broader cutbacks.

Under questioning, DeJoy said the decommissioned sorting machines won’t be put back into service. “They are not needed,” he said.

He said the removal of sorting machines was "not any kind of drain on capacity.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle cited examples of constituents and veterans not receiving their prescription medications in time, or receiving spoiled medications due to delays in mail delivery.

“We all feel bad about what the dip in our service level has been,” said DeJoy.

He said that the agency is working “feverishly” to stabilize service and delivery, but defended the delays as a temporary result of limited structural changes that he said would produce cost savings.

“We had some delays in the mail and our recovery process in this should have been a few days and it has amounted to being a few weeks,” he said.

Changes to come

DeJoy told senators that he is considering “dramatic changes” to the Postal Service after the election aimed at getting the public mail service on more solid financial footing.

He touched on a range of changes that would be cost-cutting, including price hikes for standard mail service and cuts to expensive service in remote parts of the country.

“There is a path that we are planning, OK, with the help of some legislation, with some cost impacts, with some new revenue strategies that will help and some pricing freedom from the [Postal Regulatory Commission], we believe we have a plan to do that," he added.

While he said that final plans are not set, one thing that’s not in the plan is continuing to operate the way the service had been operating.

“Take the Alaska Bypass plan discussion, that’s an item on the table,” he said. “That’s an unfunded mandate. … What I asked for is all the unfunded mandates, that’s a way for us to get healthy, pay something for the unfunded mandates.”

Alaska bypass mail service is a freight service in which shippers prepare pallets of goods, pay preferred ground parcel post rates and deliver the full pallets directly to airlines, effectively bypassing the Postal Service entirely.

More action ahead

The Democratic-controlled House is scheduled to vote Saturday on legislation that would prohibit the Postal Service from making changes to its operations during the COVID-19 public health emergency and require the service to restore capacity from before the recent cutbacks.

The bill also would give the agency $25 billion in additional financing. DeJoy told senators he didn’t want the cash infusion House Democrats are offering.

“If we just throw $25 billion at us this year and we don’t do anything, we’ll be back in two years,” he said.

At a Friday House Rules Committee meeting on the bill, Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said she tried to write the bill to appeal to Republicans. She said she was willing to drop a provision that said any person harmed by the Postal Service failing to adhere to the service standards outlined in the bill could bring civil action against the agency. Republicans said they welcomed that change, which could be incorporated into the bill on the floor.

The postal bill is likely to be the only measure the House takes up Saturday, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday shut down requests from rank-and-file Democrats to vote on additional COVID-19 relief, in particular an extension of the federal unemployment benefit of $600 per week. She told lawmakers in a "Dear Colleague" letter that adding targeted provisions might undercut Democrats' broader objectives in talks with the White House on an aid package.

GOP donations

DeJoy was selected in May by the Postal Service Board of Governors, which is controlled by Trump appointees.

DeJoy has given more than $214,000 to 15 Republicans currently serving in Congress, according to a CQ Roll Call review of Federal Election Commission records.

He gave $5,200 in 2018 to the Senate campaign of Missouri’s Josh Hawley and contributed $37,100 to the unsuccessful 2012 presidential bid by Romney, both who sit on the panel that questioned DeJoy Friday.

Romney joked that with his donations both to his own campaign and Trump's, “some would say you’ve contributed to both sides.”

The postmaster general is also set to testify before the House Oversight Committee with Postal Service Board of Governors Chairman Robert M. Duncan on Monday.

Friday's hearing was held over videoconference, which made for a moment of frustration from Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, a fierce advocate of the Postal Service who has introduced sweeping proposals to overhaul the service throughout his career.

After being called on to speak, he almost missed his window because of what seemed like technical difficulties, and was heard cursing. When his audio clicked on, Carper was exclaiming "f--k f--k f--k," and was seen signaling to a staffer out of frame. Carper was eventually recognized to ask his questions.

"Those who know me know that there are few things that get me more fired up than protecting the Postal Service! #DontMessWithUSPS" Carper tweeted after the incident, which did not go unnoticed by viewers.

Chris Marquette and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.