59ºF

U.S. House votes to reverse USPS changes that slowed mail delivery

photo

WASHINGTON

A U.S. Postal Service mail truck enters an Austin office location. Credit: Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The U.S. House voted on Saturday to send $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service and reverse operational changes that have slowed the mail service until at least through the end of the year.

In a rare move, members, driven by Democrats who say they are worried that cutbacks in mail services will jeopardize mail-in voting this November, returned to the U.S. Capitol amid summer recess to vote on the legislation.

The legislation would mandate the USPS to return to the operational levels of Jan. 1 and stay in place until the COVID-19 public health crisis ends or Jan. 1, 2021 — whichever comes later. It passed late Saturday afternoon. It is doubtful the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate will take up the legislation.

This bill would block any changes that impede mail delivery services, close post offices, reduce facility hours, eliminate overtime pay to USPS employees and increase the volume of undelivered mail.

The postal office is the latest pocket of government that has exploded in a political outrage, and the rhetoric on the House floor Saturday afternoon matched that fury.

President Donald Trump told Fox Business News earlier this month that it was his aim to starve the USPS of funding in order to compromise the country's mail-in voting process ahead of November's presidential election. Democrats on the House floor pointed to those remarks as the impetus for the emergency vote on the bill Saturday.

The USPS is in its second decade of a major scaling back of employees and operations. Due to the onset of modern technology like email, the post office has had a reduction in demand for first class mail delivery. Postal officials from previous administrations have worked to shrink the size of the mail service while also keeping the aim of fast delivery to remote parts of the country.

Republicans characterized reports of removed mailboxes and sorting machines as part of that process, and accused the Democrats of disingenuous attacks on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and Trump.

"Today’s effort is yet another smokescreen, another conspiracy theory foisted upon the American people to distract us from the real problems facing the American people," said U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, who serves on the committee that oversees the post office.

Cloud's remarks echoed other statements from Texas Republicans who spoke on the floor and issued statements about the vote. Other Republicans described the debate over delayed mail delivery as "a manufactured crisis" and "fear mongering."

U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, tweeted that Democrats were "falsely calling into question the security of our elections to justify a 25 billion dollar bail-out is a dishonest, predatory scam and a political pay-off to their government union bosses," to which U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, responded with "Amen."

But Democrats defended their action.

"Over the last couple of hours, I've heard my friends on the other side of the aisle say this say this is not serious," said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston. "You know why this is serious? A 176,000 dead Americans from COVID-19 and the projection that there may be another 300,000 dead by Dec. 1."

"My constituents who are suffering from stage-four cancer need the mail," she added.

She went on to quote from a letter USPS general counsel Thomas J. Marshall wrote to all 50 states and the District of Columbia warning that the postal service may not be able to meet deadlines for ballots mailed at the last minute.

Other House Democrats relayed constituent stories of delayed mail — including medications — and they released documents they said were prepared within the USPS to brief DeJoy on Aug. 12 that showed a slow down in mail service beginning in mid-July.

This past week, a USPS union leader in San Antonio told reporters and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, that postal officials in Washington ordered local postal employees to hide bags of backed up mail — tens of thousands of pieces dating from as far back as March — from the congressman while he was on a tour of a mail plant.

DeJoy said last week that he would pause plans to change mail services until after the election, but the aim of the bill is to reinstate operations — sorting machines, overtime and mailboxes — that were cut back in recent weeks to where they were at the beginning of the year.

The crux of the partisan dispute over the $25 billion bailout is due the complicated nature of USPS accounting.

House Republican leaders encouraged members to vote against the bill.

DeJoy will testify before the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee on Monday. Two Republican Texans serve on that committee, Cloud and Chip Roy of Austin.