WASHINGTON (AP) - New Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said Friday he has no plans to restore mailboxes and other agency cuts made since he took over in June, sparking fresh questions over how the Postal Service will ensure timely delivery of an expected surge of mail-in ballots for the November election.
It was DeJoy’s first time publicly answering questions since summer mail delays brought a public outcry. Testifying before a Senate committee, the ally of President Donald Trump said it was his “sacred duty” that ballots arrive on time. But he told senators he did not yet have a plan for handling a crush of election mail.
From the White House, Trump delivered fresh complaints over the mail-in ballots expected because of the coronavirus pandemic. As he did, the House pushed ahead with plans for a rare Saturday vote to block the postal cutbacks and funnel $25 billion to shore up operations.
DeJoy declared that the Postal Service “is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation’s election mail securely and on-time.” He distanced himself from Trump’s objections about widescale mail-in voting and said ensuring ballots arrive was his “No. 1 priority between now and Election Day.”
The outcry over mail delays and warnings of political interference have put the Postal Service at the center of the nation’s tumultuous election year, with Americans of both parties rallying around one of the nation’s oldest and more popular institutions.
The new postmaster general, a Trump donor who took the job at the start of summer to revamp the agency, is facing a backlash over changes since his arrival. Democrats warn his cost-cutting initiatives are causing an upheaval that threatens the election.
With mounting pressure, DeJoy promised this week to postpone any further changes until after the election, saying he wanted to avoid even the perception of interference. A number of blue mailboxes have been removed, back-of-shop sorting equipment has been shut down and overtime hours have been limited.
But DeJoy told senators he has no plans to restore the equipment, saying it’s “not needed.” And he stood by a new rule that limits late delivery trips, which several postal workers have said is a major cause of delivery delays. He vowed more changes are coming to postal operations after November.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said the public’s concern is understandable, particularly given Trump’s efforts to stop universal mail-in ballots. Many states are encouraging mail-in voting in response to voters’ pandemic-related fears of going to crowded polling centers on Election Day.
Trump has said he wants to block agency emergency funding that would help the service handle a great increase in mail-in ballots.
At Friday’s hearing, DeJoy said he’d had “no idea” equipment was being removed until the public outcry.
Now that it’s widely known, Democrats pressed him for his plan to ensure election mail and ballots arrive on time.
“Do you have a more detailed plan?” demanded Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, asking for it by Sunday.
“I don’t think we’ll have a complete plan by Sunday night,” DeJoy replied, acknowledging it was just being formed.
He is expected to testify before the House on Monday.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, defended the postmaster and dismissed the Democratic claims of election “sabotage.”
Johnson, of Wisconsin, said public outcry over the mail smacked of “ginned up” effort to rally voters - a “political hit job.”
Meanwhile, attorneys general in Pennsylvania, California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Washington D.C., filed a lawsuit on Friday to halt the changes. In all, some 20 states and several voting rights groups are now suing.
As House Democrats prepare for Saturday’s vote, Republicans are mounting a counter-offensive, saying the concerns about mail delivery are overblown and the money is unnecessary.
In a memo to House Republicans, leaders called the legislation a “conspiracy theory” by Democrats to “spread fear and misinformation” about mail operations.
Nevertheless, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is eyeing a $10 billion postal rescue as part of the next COVID-19 relief package. The White House has said it would be open to more postal funding as part of a broader bill.
The Postal Service has been struggling financially under a decline in mail volume, COVID-related costs and a rare and critics say cumbersome congressional requirement to fund in advance its retiree health care benefits.
For many, the Postal Service provides a lifeline, delivering not just cards and letters but also prescription drugs, financial statements and other items that are especially needed by mail during the pandemic.
The postal board of governors, appointed by Trump, selected DeJoy to take his job. A GOP donor, he previously owned a logistics business that was a longtime Postal Service contractor. He maintains significant financial stakes in companies that do business or compete with the agency, raising conflict of interest questions.
In a statement, the Postal Service said DeJoy has made all required financial disclosures but that he might have to divest some holdings if conflicts arise.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whose role in postal operations is being questioned by Senate Democrats, said in a letter to Democratic leader Chuck Schumer that he had no hand in “recruiting or suggesting” DeJoy for the job.
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, said he would judge the postmaster by “deeds, and a lot of what he said did not comport with the facts on the ground.”
Republicans have long sought postal reforms to run the agency more like a private company, and Trump often complains the Postal Service should be charging Amazon and other companies higher rates for package deliveries. Mnuchin told Schumer he was reviewing those contracts.
Others say the Postal Service is not expected to be solely a money-making enterprise, often delivering to far-flung places where it is not efficient to operate.
David C. Williams, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, on Thursday told lawmakers that he resigned from the board in part over DeJoy’s selection, and because he believed the White House was taking extraordinary steps to turn the independent agency into a “political tool.”
Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
The Associated Press produced this coverage with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
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