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USPS says it’s too close to the election for most of Congress to inspect facilities

The Postal Service is citing the Hatch Act in rejecting tour requests, even as lawmakers ratchet up scrutiny over service delays and vote-by-mail issues.

People gather for a rally in support of the U.S. Postal Service outside a post office in Cambridge, Mass. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The U.S. Postal Service is blocking members of Congress from inspecting postal facilities despite questions about the handling of mail-in ballots to avoid putting its workforce at “unreasonable risk” of violating the Hatch Act, according to newly obtained emails between agency officials and congressional staff members.

Three Democrats — Reps. Jared Huffman (Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Bill Pascrell Jr. (N.J.) — have been denied access to postal buildings in their home states in the past six weeks. Lawmakers often tour agencies to gather insight that could shape their decision-making and maintain government accountability.

The Postal Service is citing the Hatch Act, which prohibits civil servants from certain partisan activities, and in-house ethics rules in turning away tour requests from anyone on a ballot within 45 days of a primary or general election. Under those guidelines, more than 85 percent of Congress — every member of the House, which has two-year terms, and a third of the Senate, where terms are six years — plus thousands more state and local officials are prohibited from visiting mail facilities. However, under federal guidelines, such restrictions cannot prevent elected officials from “appropriately representing their constituents."

“The post office is subject to oversight by Congress. That’s what the law says,” Pascrell said in an interview. As such, it must submit to “unceasing oversight from the democratically elected representatives.

“Last I looked, I’m one of them. I intend to visit Kearny,” he said, referencing the New Jersey facility. “This is not Area 51.”

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The lawmakers were turned away as the agency was grappling with service slowdowns that voting rights advocates, Democrats and large swaths of the public fear could interfere with the Nov. 3 election. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy instituted operational changes, including stricter transportation timelines, within weeks of taking office that led to massive mail backlogs this summer. About 7 percent of all first-class mail was snagged up in the slowdowns, according to an analysis conducted by the office of Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the chamber’s leading Democrat on postal oversight.

During the transition period, with on-time delivery rates for first-class mail decreasing by nearly 10 percentage points, President Trump announced that he would block emergency pandemic funding from reaching the agency to hamper its ability to facilitate mail-in voting. The ensuing backlash from Democrats and voting rights groups prompted DeJoy — a GOP fundraiser and major Trump booster — to suspend parts of his cost-cutting regimen but left in place his transportation schedule, though in recent weeks it has been struck down by federal courts in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington state and the District of Columbia.

In late August, House and Senate panels called DeJoy to testify about the delivery slowdowns. The House Oversight and Reform Committee subpoenaed documents on the service problems and DeJoy’s contacts with members of the Trump administration and campaign. Afterward, a handful of lawmakers asked to tour postal facilities to discuss operational issues with local workers and supervisors.

Agency officials warned Pascrell’s office that his request to tour the Dominic V. Daniels Processing and Distribution Center in Kearny, N.J., on Sept. 21 would place workers at “unreasonable risk” of violating the Hatch Act, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post. The Postal Service also cited the Hatch Act when it turned down Huffman’s request to visit to a post office in Eureka, Calif., on Aug. 17.

“Members of Congress have a responsibility to conduct oversight of federal services, particularly when we hear from constituents that those services are not functioning properly,” said Peters, who visited two postal facilities over the summer. “Pressure from Congress and the public have helped put a stop to some of the changes that were causing harmful mail delays and we must be allowed to continue shining a light on the Postal Service’s operations.”

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Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), a retired postal worker, said in an interview: I understand sometimes people may be critical of the debate that we have in Congress. But there’s an expectation from the people when we campaign, we tell our constituents that we are going to listen to them. We’re going to fight for them. We’re going to be their voice. And we’re going to ensure the government. For me, that’s a very strong commitment.”

In an emailed statement, Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer wrote that although the agency “welcomes” visits from members of Congress, it takes its responsibilities with respect to the Hatch Act very seriously.

He said the agency revised its ethics guidelines in 2018 to ban candidates for federal, state and local office from visiting facilities within 45 days of an election. The prohibition applies only to elected officials, not their staff members, he said.

“Given the heated nature of campaigns, and the fact that our employees’ views run the full range of political opinions, the potential for an employee to knowingly or unwittingly violate the Hatch Act — and be held to account by another employee — is simply too great,” Scott Slusher, a manager in the Postal Service’s government liaison office, wrote to Pascrell’s staff in an email obtained by The Post.

Experts say the Postal Service should curtail visits that are clearly political in nature to shield postal workers and the agency from being used by campaigns. But, according to guidance issued in 2018 from the Office of Special Counsel, these safeguards should not apply to elected officials visiting federal facilities for an “official purpose, such as receiving briefings, tours, or other official information.”

Several high-ranking members of the Trump administration have come under fire over possible Hatch Act violations. Ethics watchdogs criticized the White House for staging the Republican Party’s nominating convention on the South Lawn of the White House in August. Presidential advisers Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump have been accused of using their positions to hawk products. Political appointees of either party are rarely disciplined — or prosecuted — for such behavior.

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But those actions, experts say, were overtly political and had little to do with the business of governing the country. Congressional oversight visits are an important tool for lawmakers to hold the executive branch accountable and conduct research that goes into drafting and voting on legislation.

“They have legitimate congressional legislative constitutional responsibilities to oversee the executive branch, which includes the Postal Service. And to suddenly say a month and a half out of an election in an election year that they just can’t do that — they can’t visit as part of their constitutional responsibilities — is pretty bizarre to me,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. “Of course, our postal employees should be shielded from being swept up into a campaign while they’re on the job. … But saying a postal worker could somehow violate the Hatch Act because Bill Pascrell Jr. visits a postal facility to see what’s going on because there are genuine concerns about the processing of mail and mail-in ballots, that’s absurd.”

Pascrell’s office requested a visit 43 days before the Nov. 3 vote. He last visited the facility in October 2018, according to a spokesperson, well within 45 days of the midterm elections.

Even this summer, the Postal Service appears to have unevenly applied its visitation policies. A week after Peters and Lawrence visited a facility outside Detroit, Huffman was refused a meeting with a local postmaster in California. Within the next two weeks, though, the Postal Service granted Peters another inspection, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) visited a postal plant in Lansing, Mich.

The week after Peters’s second inspection, Postal Inspection Service officers blocked Wasserman Schultz from entering facilities in Miami and Opa-Locka, Fla.

Huffman, in an interview, described the events as “outrageous.”

“I represent my constituents, and that’s the people they serve,” he said. “To even presume that this had anything to do with the campaign is itself insulting.”