Facing public backlash, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Friday strenuously denied that recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service were designed to negatively impact the handling of mail-in ballots for the November election.
"The insinuation is, quite frankly, outrageous," DeJoy said under oath as a Senate committee digs into disruptions and changes at the USPS.
The outcry over mail delays and warnings of political interference have put the Postal Service at the centre of the country's tumultuous election year.
"I want to assure this committee and the American public that the Postal Service is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation's election mail securely and on-time," DeJoy said in his opening statement to the Senate governmental affairs committee.
"This sacred duty is my No. 1 priority between now and Election Day."
U.S. President Donald Trump has praised the new head of the Postal Service, a Republican donor and ally. He has also frequently criticized mail-in voting as more prone to potential fraud, without citing evidence.
Democrats warn DeJoy's cost-cutting initiatives since arriving in June are causing an upheaval that threatens the election. Trump raised the stakes by saying he wants to block agency funds to make it harder for the Postal Service to handle the expected surge of mail-in ballots.
Other than a congratulatory call after taking on the role in May, DeJoy said he had never spoken to Trump about the agency's changes. He also said he hadn't discussed USPS operations with Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows or the Trump campaign team.
DeJoy admits there have been delays
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the chair of the committee, dismissed the "false political narrative" that DeJoy is trying to "sabotage" the election.
"It is Postmaster DeJoy's commendable attempt to reduce those excess costs that are now being cynically used to create this false political narrative," the Wisconsin senator said.
Johnson said it is also false, as had been portrayed in some media reports, that Trump installed DeJoy, who was chosen by the agency's bipartisan board of governors.
The Postal Service is struggling financially under a decline in mail volume, rising costs from the coronavirus pandemic and a rare, and some say cumbersome congressional requirement to fund in advance its retiree health care benefits.
But Democrats Gary Peters and Tom Carper of Delaware questioned the timing of sweeping changes, pointing to hundreds of complaints from their constituents about delays in receiving mail.
DeJoy was forced to admit that some disruptions have taken place, though he said a "substantial portion" were due to the pandemic. Dozens of postal employees have died from COVID-19, it has been separately reported, with thousands needing time off after positive tests.
Democrats on the panel also complained that requests and calls for documents in recent weeks to DeJoy and the agency have gone unreturned, hampering their oversight function.
Even for those who vote in person, the Postal Service changes could have an impact, through potential delays in cards and letters, prescription drug delivery and benefit cheques and other documents especially needed in a time of pandemic.
Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen may have had the most effective questioning for the Democrats, catching DeJoy flatfooted and forcing him to acknowledge he did no studies of how the changes he was making would impact seniors, veterans and working families.
"Is there any analysis?" she demanded.
He said his analysis showed delivery would be improved but equivocated on getting the underlying data to the committee.
With mounting pressure, DeJoy last week vowed to postpone any further changes until after the election, saying he wanted to avoid even the "perception" of any interference.
Those changes included blue mailboxes being removed, back-of-shop sorting equipment being shut down and overtime hours being kept in check.
DeJoy testified Friday those kind of removals occur on a regular basis every year, implying that the incidents are drawing attention right now because of the anticipation of the election.
WATCH l Election mail could lead to result delay if vote is close:
DeJoy said overtime had "not been curtailed by me or the leadership team," and that spending on extra hours is at roughly the same rate as before the pandemic. The service has enough cash on hand to support operating expenses through the Nov. 3 election, he said.
"I think the American people can feel comfortable that the postal service will deliver on this election," DeJoy told Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma.
Because of the decentralized nature of U.S. elections, there is significant variance across states in who can vote by mail, as well as the relevant timelines. Republican Rob Portman of Ohio said it was one reason there needed to better co-ordination between the federal agency and state election boards.
To Utah Republican Mitt Romney, DeJoy said that voters should feel "extremely, highly confident" that a mailed ballot sent seven days before deadline would be counted.
But he also admitted at another point: "The general word around here is — vote early."
As he was testifying, six states filed suit against the Postal Service on Friday, saying service changes adopted in recent weeks have harmed the ability of states "to conduct free and fair elections."
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania, was also joined by California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
As well, the Postal Service on Friday launched a new website to help communicate correct information about voting by mail, for both citizens looking to cast ballots and election officials seeking resources.
Saturday session called
House Democrats are pushing ahead with a rare Saturday session to pass legislation that would prohibit the actions and send $25 billion US to shore up postal operations.
They will also get their own chance to grill DeJoy, at a House oversight committee hearing on Monday morning.
Listen | Rep. Alma Adams talks to CBC News about the sudden changes:
A Republican donor, DeJoy previously owned a logistics business that was a longtime Postal Service contractor. He maintains significant financial stakes in companies that do business or compete with the agency, raising conflict of interest questions.
The Postal Service has said DeJoy has made all required financial disclosures but that he might have to divest some holdings if conflicts arise.
DeJoy is the husband of Aldona Wos who has been put forth as the next U.S. ambassador to Canada but has not yet been confirmed by Congress.
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