The crisis at the Postal Service has been building and accelerating for months with virtually no official response. Over the past two weeks, however, it reached a crescendo that even the country’s remarkably confrontation-averse opposition party could not ignore.
In a matter of days, overwhelming grassroots pressure pushed House Democrats from seemingly having no plan to executing a rapid return to Washington, D.C., getting a hearing with the postmaster general on the calendar for next week and winning a promise from Louis DeJoy to cease operational changes until after the election.
But, despite these early wins, protecting the USPS will require a steadfast commitment to seeing concessions implemented and getting to the bottom of this woeful series of events to make sure the caucus doesn’t lose its resolve, it’s essential that we keep up the pressure through the November finish line and beyond.
In 2018, Democrats promised that, if propelled to a House majority, they would take on Trump. But it wasn’t long before it became clear that their actions in office would fall far short of their campaign trail promises.
Starting from Rep. Richard Neal’s initial failure to request Trump’s tax returns through to pursuit of the narrowest possible impeachment strategy, Democratic leadership failed to deliver. Up until just a few days ago, the Postal Service story was shaping up to be a repeat of this lackluster oversight pattern.
Within weeks of the pandemic’s onset, the Postal Service was warning that lower mail volumes put it at risk of collapse by summer. As we argued at the time, Democratic lawmakers had enormous leverage to protect elections and the USPS, and provide much-needed relief in March. With stock markets (and thus, the rich) a mess along with the real economy, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump needed Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
In the blink of an eye, however, Democratic leadership traded postal service relief away at Trump’s insistence. Funds wouldn’t surface again in proposed legislation until May, by which time Democrats’ leverage was gone. With the stock market still flying high (thanks in part to the CARES Act’s generous corporate relief measures), it’s unclear when Democrats will have negotiating power again.
In the meantime, the situation at USPS has only grown more dire. The little help that the CARES Act provided to the Postal Service—a $10 billion loan—ran through the Treasury Department. Predictably, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin leveraged the funds to extract concessions. In June, Trump appointed Louis DeJoy, a major GOP donor, as postmaster general. He quickly set about shifting the agency’s priorities and upending usual practice. Before long, reports of protracted delays began surfacing across the country.
Over the last couple of weeks, the steady drip of bad news has become a flood. DeJoy oversaw a worrying organizational shakeup, reassigning or displacing 23 postal service executives, including two who managed day-to-day operations. Mail sorting machines in several distribution centers are being dismantled and sold, limiting the service’s capacity to rapidly sort flat mail (like absentee ballots). In Oregon and Montana, envelope collection boxes are being picked up and hauled away. Oregon, notably, votes entirely by mail. On Friday, we learned that the USPS has warned states that mail-in ballots in 46 states may not arrive in time to be counted.
For those still unconvinced by this mountain of evidence, President Trump spelled out the logic of these attacks and his stubborn opposition to Postal Service funding last Thursday: “They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.” And just two days later he warned, almost gleefully, that problems with mail-in voting could delay November’s election result for “months” or even “years.”
This is a direct, undisguised assault on the basic democratic process. Yet, until this weekend, Speaker Pelosi leaned almost exclusively on standard tactics to respond, issuing sternly-worded statements that seemingly seek to appeal to the president’s still hidden (after four years!) sense of decency. This is how one plays against a political opponent who is negotiating in good faith, not a would-be demagogue dismantling the very process of democratic elections. For months, other members of the caucus seemingly toed leadership’s line.
But, over the last few days, as the crisis spiraled further and further out of control, a rebellion was brewing. From the grassroots up through the Democratic caucus, people who had long been willing to trust Pelosi’s lead were fed up. Major people-powered organizations demanded action, pushed calls into members’ offices and poured out into the streets, including in front of Postmaster General DeJoy’s home. In turn, Democratic House members from the left to the center grew more strident in their calls for action and creative oversight tactics.
This pressure worked. After days of unacceptable dithering, Pelosi agreed on Sunday night to re-gavel the House into session to confront the USPS crisis. She also greenlit an “emergency” Oversight Committee hearing with DeJoy and USPS Board of Governors Chairman Robert Duncan for next week. Facing credible threats from newly rebellious members to issue subpoenas and deploy the Sergeant-at-Arms in the case they’re ignored, DeJoy has already agreed to appear. Tuesday, he went a step further, promising to suspend operational changes until after the election to avoid “the appearance of any impact on election mail.”
These wins are consequential but they shouldn’t blind USPS’ valiant defenders to the need to keep the pressure on. A promise to end the operational overhauls does not necessarily mean that it will be implemented, nor that harmful changes already enacted will be reversed. To win this battle, House Democrats are going to need to be pushed to take up the fight on multiple fronts.
Oversight must press full steam ahead with its investigation by, for example, issuing subpoenas to any and all potential sources for information on the ongoing disaster. Democrats can start with the other members of the USPS Board of Governors, an independent, bipartisan body with six sitting appointees (four Republicans and two Democrats), including Chairman Duncan, who voted to approve DeJoy’s appointment. Members are insulated from the president’s influence by measures that protect them from firing, except “for cause.” That raises the question: why would the governors, even the president’s co-partisans, go along with the plan to install the obviously unsuitable DeJoy? Their role in this should not be lost.
In addition, hearings with Postal Service workers, local election officials, and any other relevant players would elicit consequential information about the shape and scope of the threat. Members are seeking out this information as we speak—on Saturday night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used her Instagram story to encourage postal workers to describe the changes they were seeing on the ground. Such inquiries are likely to be even more consequential with the weight of the oversight committee (of which Ocasio-Cortez is a member) behind them. These hearings should begin this week, not in a month. And they should not end until USPS’ operational integrity and election security have been achieved.
Several lawmakers have called for the postmaster general to resign or be removed. But Democrats shouldn’t be waiting for Trump or DeJoy to act. If they’re worried about his fitness for office, whether because of his leadership or his blatant conflicts of interest, they should open an impeachment inquiry to dig deeper. Even after DeJoy’s reversal Tuesday, it’s essential that House members get to the bottom of the operational changes (and any ongoing problems).
These committees represent the natural first lines of defense but the full caucus will need to provide reinforcements if they want to have any hope of success. Last fall, Speaker Pelosi tried a different strategy, explicitly closing impeachment proceedings off from the rest of the caucus’ work. Even as the White House refused to provide any cooperation, House Democrats acceded to demands for appropriations, thus trading away any leverage they had to compel compliance.
This time around, House Democrats cannot let a cent out the door until Postal Service funding and operational integrity have been assured (along with aid to states to ensure they can implement necessary changes to their voting systems). With the fate of another relief bill uncertain and government spending set to expire at the end of September, this could not be more important.
Drawing this clear line in the sand will also signal to states and localities that reimbursement later for outlays on election infrastructure now are a near certainty, thereby incentivizing earlier preparations. (States that wait until a budget or continuing resolution is passed in, say, October, will struggle to prepare no matter the volume of aid provided.) While congressional Democrats wait for their colleagues across the aisle to cave, they can keep passing a package with the necessary funds for USPS and voting to ensure their priorities are at the top of the American public’s mind (no, no one outside of the Beltway remembers that the HEROES Act exists, let alone what’s in it).
Members can also look to the indirect convening and organizing authorities that come along with being a federal politician. They can, for example, meet with state and local officials to develop other creative strategies. They can also call upon figures from both sides of the aisle, from ex-military commanders to former presidents, to lend public support to the caucus’ efforts to safeguard the election.
And speaking of the presidency, Biden and Harris must make clear that in case the election is bent but not broken, any lawbreakers from Trump and DeJoy on down will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. That could influence the risk/reward calculations of key figures in this attack on democracy.
But even if they can be convinced to do all this and more, House Democrats need to also prepare for the possibility of a contested election this fall. A statement of standards that outlines scenarios in which they would judge a broken election illegitimate and details responses in each case, will lessen the degree to which they can be accused of establishing post-hoc metrics. Perhaps just as importantly, such a step would signal to the American public that lawmakers recognize the gravity of the situation.
After over a year and a half of hoping otherwise, millions have seemingly come to the hard realization that Democratic leadership is not going to save us from Trump of its own volition. Only with overwhelming pressure will House Democrats rise to the occasion. As the number of days before the election dwindle and many lawmakers inevitably gravitate back towards their habitual complacency, it is essential that we keep the pressure on.