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The Politicization Of The Postal Service

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're going to start the program with a look at the latest fight over the United States Postal Service. Earlier this week, President Trump suggested he would oppose funding for the U.S. Postal Service in order to limit mail-in voting. The president later softened those remarks by saying that he would not veto a relief bill just because it includes support for USPS. But this evening, in Bedminster, N.J., he reiterated his position on mail-in voting without evidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But I do say this - universal mail-in voting is going to be catastrophic. It's going to make our country a laughingstock all over the world.

FADEL: The Postal Service has faced bipartisan criticism recently under direction from the newly appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. Many on Capitol Hill are calling for DeJoy to address cost-cutting measures that have led to delays in mail delivery. Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia is one of many calling for answers. He chairs the House Government Operations subcommittee, which oversees the Postal Service. And he joins us now.

Congressman Connolly, welcome.

GERRY CONNOLLY: Great to be with you.

FADEL: So the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, said recently, quote, "despite any assertions to the contrary, we are not slowing down election mail or any other mail. Instead, we continue to employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all election mail." So, based on your oversight role, can you tell us what the effect of the changes has been so far?

CONNOLLY: You know, that statement you just read attributed to the postmaster general, Mr. DeJoy, is patently false. He knows that the direct effect of the so-called operational efficiencies as part of his reorganization in fact delay the mail.

There are fewer people to handle the mail because he's not allowing overtime, which is a critical tool during a pandemic. He's even retired working processing machines so that less mail is processed. He's directed that mail trucks once they're filled up should deliver the mail and that whatever mail is left behind has to wait until the next day. They've stopped delivering in post boxes if the mail volume falls below a certain level. These are changes that can only have the effect of delaying the mail.

Now, with respect to mail-in ballots, he's gone further. He's tightened the rules in terms of what will get priority consideration in delivery. So if it's not considered the equivalent of first-class mail with a stamp that gets postmarked - if, in fact, there's pre-paid postage implant - or imprint on the envelope - that could be treated as junk mail. And so you go from something being delivered in two or three days to something being delivered in seven to nine days.

And all of this is psychologically designed to persuade people that the mail is unreliable, and I should not vote by mail.

FADEL: The Washington Post is reporting that the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and Washington, D.C., warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted. What is Congress going to do to address that?

CONNOLLY: In the immediate run, Congress has limited options. But we're clearly going to highlight this issue. We're going to introduce legislation to roll back these so-called operational efficiencies. We're going to work with the men and women who work for the Postal Service to ensure that they will continue, as they always have in the past, to make mail-in ballots a priority despite what Mr. DeJoy and President Trump want to do with the postal service.

We're also going to urge people to vote early. Don't wait until the last minute to mail in a ballot. You know, try to get it in by, say, mid-October so that you have every reason to believe that it will, in fact, be delivered on time. And once you pass that kind of deadline, then look at your other alternatives.

FADEL: Now, you recently wrote a letter to the USPS inspector general asking for an audit of all the changes that have been made at the agency. Have you received a response? And what are you hoping to find out?

CONNOLLY: I have not received a response from our request for the inspector general to look at these proposed changes and their impacts. But I fully expect to hear early next week.

FADEL: And what are you looking to find out?

CONNOLLY: My belief is that the postmaster general has not gone through the right processes to impose these so-called operational efficiencies. So he hasn't gone through the Postal Regulatory Commission, and he hasn't fully consulted and gotten approval from the Postal Board of Governors. But beyond the legal foundations, we also want to have documented by the IG what the likely impacts will be.

FADEL: The Postal Service, though, has faced financial challenges for a long time. Is there a way that Louis DeJoy could have implemented necessary changes that you would have supported?

CONNOLLY: Well, he hasn't consulted with Congress at all on these changes, which he, I believe, is required to do. But I think we have to look at the context here. We're in the middle of a pandemic - the worst pandemic in a hundred years. We're also in the middle of a very important presidential election. The stakes couldn't be higher. And this is when you decide to implement changes that you know will have the effect of delaying mail.

I'm sorry. The timing is not coincidental. It's deliberate. And we now know that Mr. DeJoy, the postmaster general, and President Trump were and have been meeting in this time period, presumably talking about these changes and their impacts while Mr. Trump was excoriating voting by mail.

FADEL: As we mentioned, the president initially voiced his opposition to funding, he said because it will lead to increased voting by mail.

CONNOLLY: That's right.

FADEL: Ronald Stroman, a top official at the agency who recently stepped down, warned that some of these changes could lead to disenfranchise voters. Do you share those concerns? And what can Congress do to ensure these issues get resolved?

CONNOLLY: I do share those concerns. I believe that's the intended effect. There's a psychological effect in getting into people's heads that maybe they shouldn't vote by mail because it's not reliable, which is not true. But it also has the functional effect of delaying mail if something isn't done to reverse this. I believe that, frankly, sunshine is the best disinfectant here. The more the public learns what they're up to, the more the media focuses on this, I think it's going to be a lot harder for them to try to do this. I think it's going to backfire.

And ironically, were they to succeed in their goal of discouraging people voting by mail, in many ways, it's probably their own base that's going to heed that advice because in counties that have robust voter participation and no voter suppression measures in place, those local electoral boards are already taking robust measures to encourage voting by mail and to ensure its integrity and safety. And they're working with their local post offices and postmasters to make that happen.

And so it's in Trump-carried counties that are likely to be a lot more lackadaisical about this given his direction. And the - you know, the net effect could be that he actually discourages his own base from voting.

FADEL: That was Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democrat representing Virginia's 11th District and chairman of the House Government Operations Subcommittee.

Congressman Connolly, thank you.

CONNOLLY: My great pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF EASY LIFE'S "SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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