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Postmaster general announces he is ‘suspending’ policies blamed for mail delays

Lori Cash, a 22-year USPS veteran, talks about the Trump administration's influence on the Postal Service and how it is causing concerns for mail-in ballots. (Video: The Washington Post)

The U.S. Postal Service said it will shelve its controversial cost-cutting initiatives until after the November election, canceling service reductions, reauthorizing overtime and suspending the removal of mail-sorting machines and public collection boxes.

Tuesday’s reversal comes hours after at least 21 states announced plans to sue the mail service and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, arguing that policy changes widely blamed for mail slowdowns will interfere with their abilities to conduct elections.

DeJoy is poised to address those issues at a Senate hearing Friday, then go before a House panel on Monday with Robert M. Duncan, chairman of the USPS Board of Governors.

Tensions reached a peak Thursday when President Trump said he would block funding for the Postal Service in an attempt to hobble its ability to process mailed ballots. Last month, the USPS notified 46 states and D.C. that their deadline requirements for voters to request and cast ballots were “incongruous” with its service standards, and it encouraged local election officials to use first-class postage, which costs 55 cents per item and arrives in two to five days, on election mail rather than third-class postage, which costs 20 cents and takes three to 10 days, as had been the practice for years.

DeJoy’s announcement Tuesday did little to quiet concerns or address questions about reported backlogs at processing plants or delays in home delivery. Democratic lawmakers continued to press postal officials for answers about the policies and elaboration on the agency’s preparedness to collect election mail.

“Postmaster General DeJoy cannot put the genie back in the bottle,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who chairs the House subcommittee responsible for postal oversight, said in a statement. “Sunshine in the form of public pressure has forced Mr. DeJoy to completely reverse himself. While this is a victory for all voters and every American that relies on the USPS, congressional oversight cannot be interrupted. If Mr. DeJoy has nothing to hide, he will come to Congress with answers to our questions about the service disruptions that have defined his tenure as Postmaster General.”

“Our fight against them is working,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) said during an online panel Tuesday, referring to DeJoy and the USPS. “It shows that the public pressure we are putting on them is working.”

DeJoy, a former logistics executive and Trump ally, took office in mid-June and swiftly ushered in organizational changes, cracking down on overtime hours and banning extra trips by postal carriers trying to ensure on-time mail delivery. Since then, mail service gaps have been reported in localities across the country, delaying delivery of prescription medications and election mail during some midsummer primaries.

The Postal Service also planned to take 671 mail-sorting machines, roughly 10 percent of its inventory, offline to cut costs, and had in recent days removed, relocated and replaced public mailboxes in a number of states, including Oregon, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Montana and Arizona. DeJoy also reshuffled the agency’s top ranks, removing or reassigning 33 executives.

Democratic lawmakers have been taking DeJoy to task over those changes, with several calling for him to resign. Postal Service Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb launched an investigation into those changes last week, along with DeJoy’s financial portfolio.

“I came to the Postal Service to make changes to secure the success of this organization and its long-term sustainability,” DeJoy said in a statement Tuesday. “I believe significant reforms are essential to that objective, and work toward those reforms will commence after the election.

“In the meantime, there are some long-standing operational initiatives — efforts that predate my arrival at the Postal Service — that have been raised as areas of concern as the nation prepares to hold an election in the midst of a devastating pandemic. To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded.”

DeJoy said he would expand the agency’s leadership task force on election mail to include labor union leaders and industry associations. Mail-processing equipment and mailboxes “will remain where they are,” and service hours will not change, he said. “We will engage standby resources in all areas of our operations, including transportation, to satisfy any unforeseen demand,” he added.

“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” he said. “Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards. The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and election day.”

Democrats in both chambers began clamoring for hearings after Trump said he wanted to withhold funding from the Postal Service to attempt to hobble its ability to process election mail.

On Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows blamed many of the delays on decisions made during the Obama administration. “President Trump at no time has instructed or directed the post office to cut back on overtime, or any other operational decision that would slow things down,” he said.

Trump and first lady Melania Trump had their absentee ballots delivered to Palm Beach election officials just in time to be counted in Florida’s primary election Tuesday, the second time this year he has voted by mail in the state. The couple designated someone to pick up their ballots from the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections’ office in West Palm Beach on Aug. 12. The ballots arrived back at the office Monday, according to Ashley Houlihan, an attorney for the supervisor’s office.

Democrats have alleged that DeJoy, a former Republican National Convention finance chairman, pushed through policies that have caused dysfunction in the mail system and could wreak havoc in the presidential election.

Republicans have largely dismissed those allegations, saying DeJoy needed to take decisive action to cut costs at the long-beleaguered agency, which is carrying $106.9 billion in debt.

“Postmaster General DeJoy has nothing to be ashamed of,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said in a statement. “The Postal Service has been in dire straits long before Mr. DeJoy’s leadership and he rightfully took action to improve its efficiency and operations to better serve the American people.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will gavel the Friday hearing remotely and is expected to press DeJoy on whether the Postal Service truly needs the $25 billion in emergency funding that the House has pushed.

The Trump administration has started backing away from its hard-line stance against any postal aid, signaling over the weekend it would be willing to approve $10 billion.

Senate Democrats — including the party’s presumptive vice-presidential nominee, Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), and Gary Peters (Mich.), who launched his own investigation of mail delays last week — are poised to grill DeJoy on his connections to the White House.

DeJoy has given more than $2 million to the Trump campaign or Republican causes since 2016, according to the Federal Election Commission, including a $210,600 contribution to the Trump Victory Fund on Feb. 19. He has given more than $650,000 to the Trump Victory Fund and more than $1 million to the Republican National Convention.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in March attempted to leverage an emergency coronavirus loan to the Postal Service that would allow the White House to approve the next postmaster general, along with higher package rates — long a target for Trump.

The announcement also leaves unresolved DeJoy’s plans for the agency’s long-term finances. The Postal Service has $15 billion in the bank, plus a $10 billion loan from an early round of coronavirus relief as a backstop. That’s more cash on hand than it had at the start of the pandemic, when the agency forecast it would run out of money in October.

Since then, volume declines in first- and second-class mail — the USPS’s most profitable products — have been smaller than anticipated. Package volume, meanwhile, has skyrocketed, up 55 percent in the last week of July from the year-ago period. That has put off financial calamity until at least spring 2021 and could sustain the agency for another year, according to recent projections.

“This is totally a perception issue that the postmaster general is addressing. He and his board of governors,” Meadows said. “But any logistical operational concerns in terms of getting mail as quickly as possible to its destination will be addressed through overtime pay. And there’s more than enough money in the bank account.”

Beyond that, however, the USPS’s financial picture is murkier: If consumer habits endure past the pandemic and e-commerce continues to surge, the Postal Service will be in desperate need of new machinery to process those items and new trucks to carry them. It also will see fiercer competition from the likes of Amazon, FedEx and UPS, which have used gains during the pandemic to expand their own shipping networks. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Trump, who was touring the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Ariz., on Tuesday, incorrectly suggested that higher package prices on Amazon, which contracts with the Postal Service on “last mile” deliveries from distribution centers to consumers’ homes, would solve the agency’s financial problems. Instead, postal finance experts say, such a strategy would bankrupt the USPS faster by chasing business away to private-sector rivals.

“Amazon will pay for the cost of the post office,” Trump said. “Amazon should pay for it. Then you’ll solve problems. . . . I don’t want to lay people off.”

Despite DeJoy’s announcement, a group of Democratic attorneys general said they were proceeding with lawsuits against him and the Postal Service, saying it was essential to obtain court orders to permanently halt service changes that have led to fears that November’s election could be disrupted.

“A tweet or a statement or a press release is one thing. We need to see binding action to reverse these changes,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference.

So far, 21 states have signed on to the suits, including one filed Tuesday afternoon in federal court in Washington state. The states argue that the Postal Service broke the law by making operational changes without first seeking approval from the Postal Regulatory Commission. They also argue that the changes will impede states’ ability to run free and fair elections. The Constitution gives states and Congress, not the executive branch, the power to regulate elections.

The states are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

“We’re trying to stop Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service, which we believe to be an attack on the integrity of the election. It’s a straight-up attack on democracy,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said in an interview. “This conduct is illegal, it’s unconstitutional, it’s harmful to the country, it’s harmful to individuals.”

Problems at the Postal Service have caused particular anxiety this year as many people planned to vote by mail rather than risk exposure to the novel coronavirus by waiting in lines and lingering inside polling places.

Democrats fanned out to post offices across the country on Tuesday in a “Postal Day of Action,” turning up in states including Florida, California and Colorado in defense of the mail system and the electoral process.

“I think this is the scariest and most important election of my lifetime,” said Leslie Bouwman, 75, a retired social worker from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Bouwman was among more than 50 people gathered Tuesday in front of St. Petersburg’s historic post office to protest Trump’s handling of the Postal Service. Protesters carried signs reading “U.S. Mail Not For Sale” and “Stamp Out 45,” a reference to Trump as the 45th president.

In Colorado, Rep. Jason Crow (D) toured a post office in Aurora as part of his effort to determine whether mail slowdowns are systemic in his district.

“This is a fundamental part of life, and our community and our seniors really rely on this service,” he said. “It’s real, and it’s immediate, and if people don’t get their medication on time, they feel it; if a veteran isn’t getting a disability check on time, they feel it.”

Crow said the issue could be particularly acute in his district, home to 70,000 veterans, Buckley Air Force Base and a large veterans hospital.

In downtown Denver, alongside a cavernous post office with glass-block windows, Rep. Diana DeGette (D) said that more than 12,000 constituents have emailed, called and sent handwritten letters to her office with concerns that mail delays could severely harm their ability to receive paychecks or medications. She said the onslaught amounts to three times more contacts than she’s received on any other issue this year, including impeachment.

Illinois Democratic Reps. Sean Casten, Bill Foster and Lauren Underwood said they would back legislation in the House to rein in DeJoy’s changes and wanted answers in his testimony about his relationship with Trump.

“He owes the American people some answers,” Underwood said. “Why was he willingly participating in a politically motivated exercise to disenfranchise voters, to limit the reliability of a trusted institution?”

Demonstrators over the weekend held rallies in front of DeJoy’s homes in D.C. and Greensboro, N.C., demanding he rescind the new policies. Protesters in Washington banged pots and pans at 8 a.m. Saturday to “wake up” the postmaster general to problems in his agency, and they left letters tacked to the building’s front door.

Reps. Charlie Crist and Kathy Castor, Florida Democrats, decried what they called the Trump administration’s attempt to undermine the Postal Service.

“I believe this is outrageous for the administration to stand in the way of the delivery of the mail to the people of America,” Crist said.

Joshua Partlow, Seung Min Kim, Tony Romm, Christopher Ingraham, Erin Chan Ding, Lori Rozsa, Jennifer Oldham and Jared Leone contributed to this report.