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Senator Who Launched USPS Investigation Unsatisfied By DeJoy's Testimony

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin with the ongoing fight over changes at the U.S. Postal Service. Earlier today, in a rare Saturday session, the House voted to halt those changes and provide $25 billion in emergency funding. Now, this comes a day after the man at the center of it all, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, was summoned virtually to an online hearing before the Senate committee that oversees the agency. DeJoy, who was also a major Republican donor, took questions and responded to complaints that the changes he's implemented are intended to slow mail-in voting.

Michigan Senator Gary Peters is the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs who launched the investigation into changes at the post office. And he is with us now.

Senator Peters, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

GARY PETERS: Oh, great to be with you. Thank you.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you instigated the investigation that led to Friday's hearing. During his testimony, Mr. DeJoy said he was, quote, "extremely, highly confident" that ballots, including ones sent close to Election Day, would be delivered on time. Did he convince you?

PETERS: No, I think there's still a lot of unanswered questions. He provided some answers, but we have questions. And basically, the questions are related to data. What sort of analysis was done? Clearly, there could not have been analysis done unless this was the desired result if you look at what happened starting in mid-July.

And that's where I started to get a flood of calls from folks all across the state of Michigan who were concerned about delays in postal delivery, delays that they had not experienced in the past. And you look at the data that is out, you see a significant drop in on-time deliveries starting in mid-July, which coincides with a number of changes that the postmaster put in effect in terms of process.

MARTIN: So Mr. DeJoy said that the changes - the operational changes that he instituted will be suspended until after the election. But he also said Friday that he will not reinstall more than 600 mail-sorting machines that have already been removed because he said that they're not needed.

And I should mention here that the Postal Service decommissions mail-sorting machines every year. But The Washington Post reported that in 2018, for instance, they decommissioned about 125 machines, and this year, 671 were slated to be removed. Now, you presented evidence at the hearing, just like you just told us, that first-class mail delivery has, in fact, slowed in many places. Do you think that's why?

PETERS: It's certainly a contributing factor. You know, I spent a considerable amount of time talking to the men and women who are on the front line - the letter carriers, the postal workers, the mail handlers. And let me just say at the outset, these individuals are professionals. They care deeply about making sure that mail gets to customers on time. So they're my eyes and ears, and they're telling me that the policies that they have never seen before are contributing to it.

In terms of sorters, they're saying, actually, sometimes the management actually has them stop sorting mail even though they could continue to do it. And that is a concern. And now you're seeing sorters being taken out. And it's curious that the postmaster general says we don't need these sorters. It's overcapacity. And yet, if you look at some of the data that we have, on-time deliveries have dropped dramatically since he started pulling out these sorters. So I don't know how you reconcile those two facts.

MARTIN: Senator Peters, I just have to ask - you represent a swing state, a state that played a key role in the 2016 election. I just have to ask if you have any evidence that states like yours have been targeted for these changes. Or is it possible that states like yours happen to have more of the factors that contribute - may contribute to slower service? For example, Mr. DeJoy suggested during the hearing that a lot of postal employees are sick, or they've called in sick, in part because, you know, we are facing a health crisis in this country. So do you have any evidence that this is targeted towards certain places?

PETERS: It is what we are looking to. It's part of the investigation that I've initiated. We need to know that. I want to know which states are being impacted. Are they all being impacted equally? Are there differences? And also, I think of equal importance is what's happening within states. Are there certain parts of the state that have slowdowns and other parts that don't? And I think I want to address the comment that the postmaster general made that related to COVID because it's - that they are dealing with challenges with COVID. And there's no question that's the case.

But if you look at the data that I presented from the eastern region, the Eastern Seaboard of the country, you did see a mild degrade of on-time delivery from March through July, but it was pretty consistent. And then in July, there's just a major fall-off. We're well into the COVID crisis by July, so to state that it's related to COVID crisis certainly is a factor. But it cannot be the contributing factor to the sharp decline in on-time deliveries that we started seeing starting roughly in mid-July.

MARTIN: And, you know, finally, the post office has had its ups and downs. I mean, it's one of the first government services in the United States. It is something that a lot of people take pride in as a low-cost service that serves every household in the United States. But it's also been bleeding money for years. It's billions of dollars in debt - in part, frankly, because of decisions that Congress made. And I just have to ask if you feel that there's any political will now or appetite to address these deeper issues?

PETERS: There has to be. There's no question that we have to do what is necessary to keep the Postal Service vibrant - service. We need to have reforms. There are a number of common-sense reforms we can do. We attempted to do that in the past. I was in negotiations myself last year in trying to move a postal reform bill. And, quite frankly, Republicans just walked away.

MARTIN: Well, at least, though, I have to say that the Republicans control the Senate, and they could have blocked this hearing, as I understand it. They did choose to go forward with it. I mean, I see that a number of people on the committee, Republicans on the committee, expressed skepticism about some of the complaints that Democrats were raising. But do you at least see it as a hopeful sign that the hearing went forward at all?

PETERS: Yes, I think it's - it is hopeful. I mean, and this should not be a partisan issue - although I do believe that there is an agenda that folks have to basically privatize the Postal Service.

And I think that's the broader picture here. We're talking about the election, and as important as that is - it's critically important - but from the activities that I've seen and some of the comments that people have made that they would like to privatize the Postal Service, and so there may very well be an effort to try to throw a stick in the wheel and then complain the wheel is not turning, and that's why we need to privatize. And that's unacceptable.

We're going to make sure the Postal Service continues to be a service and make sure that they have the ability and the resources to make sure every address in America gets the service that they have delivered for over 200 years.

MARTIN: That was Michigan Senator Gary Peters. He's the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

Senator Peters, thanks so much for talking to us today.

PETERS: Oh, great to be with you. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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