Pressed for details about recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service that have spurred fears of election interference and resulted in huge backlogs of mail nationwide, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Friday offered mostly placid retorts to the repeated allegations of lawmakers that he alone is responsible for leaving millions of veterans and elderly Americans wondering when, or even if, their next supply of life-sustaining medications might arrive.
DeJoy, questioned by members of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, sought to downplay the impact of the changes he had ordered, and in testimony largely failed to demonstrate that he’d taken the appropriate time, or attempted the appropriate research, before moving ahead. Nevertheless, under oath, DeJoy swore that nothing—not the decommissioning of more than 600 mail sorting machines across the country nor new restrictions on employees working overtime—would impact the delivery of electoral ballots, even as postal workers brace to be inundated for a second season by an unprecedented influx of mail.
Sen. Gary Peters, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who opened the hearing by harshly admonishing DeJoy, said that Americans were due an apology for the harms the widespread delays have caused in past weeks. “The country is anxious about whether the damage you have inflicted so far can be quickly reversed and what other plans you have in store that could disrupt reliability and timely delivery from the postal service,” he said.
Peters testified that his office had received more than 7,500 reports of mail delays from across the country, including from his home state of Michigan, just in the past two weeks alone. “They have written to me about skipping doses of their medication, and their small businesses losing their customers or having to lay off employees,” he said. “All because of changes you directed.”
Needled over his role as a Republican mega-donor, DeJoy insisted Thursday that U.S. voters could place their faith in the Postal Service, even through its current struggles. And pressed with concerns over delivery delays that have forced some Americans to ration life-saving drugs, DeJoy promised to work alongside lawmakers to protect those deliveries.
“Eighty percent of veterans’ prescriptions are filled by the United States Postal Service,” Sen. Jacky Rosen, a former computer programmer, told DeJoy, who repeatedly dodged questions about what, if any, research he’d undertaken before slowing down the mail. America’s veterans and seniors were paying the price, Rosen said.
DeJoy, who served for 30 years as CEO of a North Carolina-based logistics firm, testified to a decade of financial loss at the USPS. “Currently, our liabilities exceed our assets by approximately $135 billion,” DeJoy said. “Without dramatic change, there is simply no end in sight, and we face an impending liquidity crisis that threatens our ability to deliver on our mission to the American public.”
Unlike any other federal agency, the USPS is statutorily designed to run as if a government-owned corporation. Since the Nixon administration—and in direct response to a wildcat strike by postal workers in 1970—the service has been responsible for sustaining itself via its own revenue sources, most if not all of which have dried up over the past 50 years. First-class mail, in particular, has seen a sharp decline since the turn of the century, supplanted largely by electronic mail. Conservative lawmakers have long argued that the service, famously founded by Benjamin Franklin, should be privatized entirely, replaced by a number of corporate competitors—none of which currently deliver to every single U.S. address.
The USPS is seen particularly crucial to rural communities where any commercial delivery service would be forced to run at a loss, if not raise postal prices sharply. Under the law, the USPS is required to serve all U.S. residents at equal cost.
Despite these financial troubles, post offices experienced unprecedented volumes of mail due to the coronavirus outbreak, as Americans retreated from the virus into the safety of their homes. The pandemic forced family members who lived only miles apart to exchange birthday gifts by mail instead of in person. As toilet paper and other essential goods ran in short supply, people shared what they had via mail. The USPS was, again, the most crucial government service, its employees deemed essential throughout the pandemic, even though many say they are ill-equipped to protect themselves from infection on the job.
One postal worker, who asked not to be named to speak candidly about their workplace, told Gizmodo by phone that some carriers had been told to use water jugs given out last year to combat heat exhaustion for handwashing, too. The businesses whose restrooms carriers normally visited along their routes have been closed for weeks or months due to the virus.
“I have been extremely impressed by the dedication of the Postal Service workforce and their commitment to the public service that we provide the American people, and I am excited about the fantastic competencies of this organization,” DeJoy said Friday, warning that without “dramatic changes,” the service’s financial troubled threatened to sink it entirely. “[T]here is simply no end in sight, and we face an impending liquidity crisis that threatens our ability to deliver on our mission to the American public.”
Democrats who’ve questioned the rationality of implementing any drastic change during a pandemic and two months ahead of a national election, have pursued tens of billions of dollars in relief funding for USPS, though their efforts have been met with stiff opposition from GOP Senators. In recent weeks a few Republicans, including Senators Steve Daines and Susan Collins, have thrown their support behind the idea of providing the USPS a loan to cover strictly covid-19 related expenses.
President Trump, for whom DeJoy had previously served as a fundraiser, stated plainly last week that he perceived a benefit from the problems at USPS, in that “millions and millions” of mail-in ballots might not be counted this year. Having previously floated the idea of delaying the election—citing his own baseless accusations that Democrats will flood the mail with millions of counterfeit ballots in an effort to defeat him—Trump has adamantly refused to sign any coronavirus relief package that includes funding sorely required by USPS.
Democratic Senators on Thursday lambasted DeJoy for dodging their letters, questions, and calls in recent weeks. “Thank you for finally returning my call,” Sen. Tom Carper said, twice, sarcastically. “You might be wondering why there’s some skepticism of you,” he said.
Carper followed by saying that weekly constituent service reports delivered to House and Senate offices all over the country had shown a steady increase in complaints about the postal service. “Frankly, they coincide with the time that you took office,” he said. “Here’s why we’re skeptical: We got a president who doesn’t want to have vote-by-mail. We got a president who’d like to suppress the vote. We got a president who would like to see the postal service not do well,” Carper continued, summarizing a history of voter suppression in the U.S., from poll taxes to historic gerrymandering across the South.
Carper said that reports as recent as Thursday evening indicated DeJoy had “even more extreme changes” in store, which would slow down the mail even further, including massive service reductions to several states and territories and price changes that would more than double the cost of voting by mail. Asked if those reports were true, DeJoy replied: “We are considering dramatic changes to improve the service to the American people, yes.” DeJoy declined, however, to say whether he planned to reverse changes that he’d already made in recent weeks, calling them “insignificant” and “not material to anything that we do.”
Prior to becoming postmaster general, DeJoy was a deputy national fund-raising chairman for the GOP. As Carper began spelling out DeJoy’s history of Republican fundraising, DeJoy interrupted the Delaware senator, insisting he was not “political.” DeJoy, who also holds upwards of $70 million in personal investments in companies that do business with, or directly compete against, the federal agency he now controls, promised that he would nevertheless remain “independent.”
Sen. Rob Portman, meanwhile, sought to emphasize that DeJoy was not appointed by the president, but rather the postal board of governors. “That’s a bipartisan group. In fact, we confirm those people,” he said, smiling. “The long-term financial picture for the post office—postal service—is not pretty. And by the way, that’s been true for a long time,” he continued. Portman pointed to a bill introduced last month by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins, Democrat and Republican, respectively, which would provide the USPS with $25 billion in emergency relief. The funding would come in the form of a loan and would require the postmaster general to, in nine months’ time, present a plan for the service’s long-term solvency.
“Everybody knows it’s in trouble, everybody knows we got to deal with this issue,” Portman said, adding that much of the blame falls squarely on Congress for “not doing its job.”
“For so many of our service members, veterans, people who experience disabilities, and rural Americans, their local post office is their lifeline,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, Democratic of New Hampshire, who also testified to a “huge spike” in complaints about the postal service since mid-July. The recent change in volume of mail does not, she said, “change the need for timely delivery of the essential necessary items that the American public relies on the post office for.”
Hassan, like other lawmakers, testified that specific constituents had made complaints about the slowdown affecting the delivery of medications, causing them in some cases to ration life-sustaining drugs.
A postal worker told Gizmodo on Thursday that changes implemented by DeJoy—in particular, the requirement for carriers to return to their offices on time, whether they’d finished their deliveries or not—were directly responsible for delays in drug deliveries. Medicines, the worker said, are typically mailed using the cheapest postage because they are mailed out on a monthly schedule and rarely require overnight or two-day delivery. When carriers are pressed for time at the end of the day, they’ve been instructed to foremost prioritize Amazon packages. (The USPS currently handles about a third of Amazon deliveries.) Priority Mail is prioritized next, then Parcel Select, which is typically how drugs are mailed.
Asked by Hassan whether he’d commit to ensuring future changes do not delay access to medications and other necessities, DeJoy responded that he would commit to working with lawmakers on legislation that would protect those deliveries.
Rosen, the only Democrat to flip a seat in the Senate during the 2018 midterm elections, further pressed DeJoy over whether he’d conducted any analysis about the financial impact on American families. She asked whether DeJoy, who had admitted last month that some slowdown would “temporarily” result from procedure changes he’d instituted, had considered late fees incurred due to late deliveries. “When they paid rent, or their car payment, or their utility bill,” she said, “and the impact that the charges and those fees would have on working families—is there any analysis about the impact of late delivery by you?”
“The analysis that we did was that if we moved the mail on schedule, all late deliveries would have been improved,” DeJoy responded.
“Obviously that isn’t the case,” Rosen said.
“For a variety of reasons,” Dejoy said.
Asked by Sen. James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, if the USPS had “right now” the capacity to handle the influx of mail tied to the November election, DeJoy responded: “Yes, sir. And it’s more than that. Besides just the capacity, the intent, the extra activities that the whole organization is going through, between our postal union leaders, our board, the executive management team here, we focused—besides just having the capacity—to execute, to react to whatever conditions exist at that particular point in time, up to and including the pandemic, which likely will still be having some impact.”
“I think the American people can feel comfortable that the postal service will deliver on this election,” he said.