Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon on Tuesday joined in the growing criticism of U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy for implementing changes blamed for widespread delays in mail delivery.
Gideon also criticized her Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, for co-sponsoring a bill 14 years ago that postal workers now say has given DeJoy cover for sweeping cost-cutting measures. But the law in question was at the time celebrated as a bipartisan overhaul of the Postal Service.
Flanked by postal workers holding signs saying “U.S. mail not for sale” at the National Association of Letter Carriers office in Portland, Gideon echoed critiques of DeJoy that have been circulated by Democrats for several weeks.
DeJoy, a prominent financial and rhetorical supporter of President Donald Trump, has implemented a series of operational changes now blamed for delays in mail delivery, including slashing overtime and prohibiting workers from making extra trips to deliver late-arriving mail.
Gideon said those delays threaten a vital service to all Americans, and an election that could depend on timely mail service because of the skyrocketing use of mail and absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It endangers every American’s fundamental right to make their voice heard in our elections,” she said. “It also, therefore, damages and threatens every person’s right to be safe and keep themselves happy during a pandemic.”
Democrats have been blasting DeJoy’s operational overhaul, a series of moves that have fueled concerns that he’s implementing the changes to help Trump get re-elected.
Trump has repeatedly attempted to sow doubt about voting by mail, and last he week admitted that he’s holding up additional Postal Service funding because it could make voting by mail more difficult.
Gideon said DeJoy should answer for the changes that prompted the Postal Service last week to warn 46 states, including Maine, that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail will arrive in time to be counted.
“If Postmaster General DeJoy cannot provide answers and restore timely service, then he should resign,” she said.
And Gideon also took aim at Senate Republicans for not holding DeJoy accountable — and at Collins in particular for co-sponsoring a bill 14 years ago that Democrats and postal union employees now blame for giving the postmaster general cover to wantonly slash operational costs.
“Unfortunately, Maine Sen. Susan Collins helped pass and champion the legislation to create that mandate,” Gideon said. “And combined with the coronavirus, it’s been a perfect storm for challenges for the Postal Service.”
The mandate Gideon refers to was part of an overhaul of the Postal Service amid concerns that the agency’s financial struggles would lead to sharp spikes in postal rates.
Collins drafted the bill with Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware. It included a provision mandating that the Postal Service prefund health care costs for retired employees, with prescribed payments of about $5 billion a year.
Previously, the Postal Service funded the benefits on a pay-as-you-go basis, but that changed after Collins’ bill was folded into a House measure that eventually became law in 2006.
The entire bill was supported at the time by Republicans and Democrats, including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Schumer, the Senate minority leader, is now steering millions of dollars toward Maine to help Gideon’s bid to unseat Collins.
Shortly after Gideon’s press conference with postal workers, Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC associated with Schumer, announced a six-figure ad campaign attacking Collins for the prefund mandate that he himself had co-sponsored.
The Postal Service has defaulted on its prefund mandate every year since 2012, according to a fact sheet distributed by the agency earlier this year.
The Postal Service says it defaulted on $47.2 billion in mandated payments because otherwise it would not have been able to pay its employees, suppliers or deliver the mail.
So is the prefund mandate responsible for the Postal Service’s financial troubles? That claim, at least according to fact-checkers at Politifact, is only half true.
“Without the law, the Postal Service would definitely be better off, but there are still other problems. USPS itself actually says it would be facing a bleak long-term financial outlook regardless,” says a video accompanying the fact-check.
That’s because people are sending less mail and the pandemic is jacking up costs to deliver what is being sent.
In a statement, a Collins’ spokeswoman noted that the senator supports a new bill that would provide $25 billion to the Postal Service to help during the pandemic and that she previously supported a 2012 bill that would have replaced the prefunding requirement with payments over a longer period of time.
The spokeswoman also said that postal worker unions, the USPS and stakeholders originally supported the 2006 law.
That’s no longer the case.
President of the Maine State Association of Letter Carriers Mark Seitz, who spoke at Gideon’s press conference, says the mandate has allowed the postmaster general to make draconian cost-cutting changes that threaten the Postal Service.
“That has been on paper what makes the Postal Service look like they’re losing money. But operationally, over the last 20 years, the Postal Service has made money at least 18 out of the last 20 years,” Seitz said.
Debate over the Postal Service’s finances has a long, complicated history.
But this year, amid a pandemic, the constitutionally enshrined service is being thrust into an election like no other.
On Tuesday, DeJoy released a statement assuring Americans that election mail will be delivered on time.
That statement did little to slow calls for DeJoy’s resignation, nor Congressional Democrats’ call for him to appear before the House Oversight Committee later this week.
Maine Public producer Willis Ryder Arnold contributed to this report.