Under Pressure, Postmaster General Calls For Changes To Mail Delivery

Feb 24, 2021
Originally published on February 24, 2021 4:49 pm

Updated at 4:32 p.m. ET

If your mail has not been showing up some days or you're getting second notices on the bills you thought you'd paid, you're not alone. The U.S. Postal Service has been beset by continuing delays in delivering the mail.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy apologized for those delays in testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday but warned that the postal system is "in a death spiral" and needs legislation to help restore it to financial stability.

"My message is that the status quo should be acceptable to no one," DeJoy told the panel.

Shortly after DeJoy testified, President Biden announced three nominees to the Postal Service's Board of Governors, the body that runs the USPS and has the power to appoint — and replace — the postmaster general. Lawmakers who oppose DeJoy have been pushing for Biden to take such an action.

DeJoy is developing a 10-year strategic plan to address the Postal Service's problems and discussed the proposal before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

He said the service lost more than $9 billion last year and owes some $80 billion in unfunded liabilities because of a congressionally imposed mandate that it prepay the health care costs of its future retirees.

DeJoy is working with lawmakers on legislation that would end that requirement and place retirees within the Medicare program.

DeJoy gave few details of the strategic plan, which he said would be unveiled in the next two weeks. But he responded to questions from lawmakers concerned over reports that among the provisions is a plan to extend some first-class mail delivery times. He said the current three- to five-day standard for delivering first-class mail has not been met "for years."

In a testy exchange with Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., DeJoy said, "You can sit here and think I'm bringing all this damage to the Postal Service," but "the place was operationally faulty because of lack of investment and lack of ability to move forward, which is what we're trying to do."

Asked by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., how much longer he intended to stay as postmaster general, DeJoy responded: "A long time. Get used to me."

DeJoy's 10-year plan is already drawing criticism from congressional Democrats and some of the Postal Service's biggest customers.

"The standard for the Postal Service has been the mail gets delivered on time 96% of the time," Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., told NPR ahead of the hearing. "But what we're seeing nationally is roughly 80% and in some areas considerably less than that. In Detroit, for example, it's roughly 74%. So that's still an unacceptable standard."

Peters, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the Postal Service, was one of more than 30 Democratic senators who wrote to DeJoy last week asking for an explanation of the poor on-time delivery rates.

Many congressional Democrats, upset with the Postal Service since DeJoy was named postmaster general last year, are calling for his ouster. Peters isn't there yet but says he has "concerns about his performance to date. I think the numbers speak for themselves, but my focus right now is to make sure that we appoint a full complement of the Board of Governors."

Biden took a step toward that by announcing three nominees on Wednesday: a former lawyer for the American Postal Workers Union, an elections expert and advocate for voting by mail, and a former deputy postmaster general.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., called the action "a positive first step toward restoring some balance and integrity at the Board of Governors." But in her statement she also said the president should go even further and replace all members of the board, which contains nine governors.

As for DeJoy's 10-year plan, The Washington Post reported this month that it would include slowing the delivery of some local first-class mail.

Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, says "degrading" first-class mail is a terrible idea. "You shouldn't even call it first-class mail if it takes three days for something to get a short distance."

Steidler says it's the poor and the elderly who are hurt most by slower mail deliveries. "There's going to be greater instances of court notices not being received on time, payments to credit card companies not getting in on time and penalties being assessed," Steidler says, "and it's completely unnecessary."

There is also concern that DeJoy will propose raising postage rates to put the service on sounder financial footing. Michael Plunkett, president of PostCom, a trade association for large mailers, says that idea makes no sense.

"Customers of the Postal Service have been experiencing the worst service in decades in the last couple of months," he says. "It seems to me to be shortsighted and perhaps imprudent to plan on a large price increase in the middle of a pretty significant economic recession when your customers are extremely dissatisfied with the level of service they've been experiencing."

In a statement before Wednesday's testimony, DeJoy said, "This work is not only needed, it is long overdue. As we finalize our plan we look forward to sharing more details in the coming weeks."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On-time mail delivery rates have fallen below the post office's own standards lately. And today, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy faced tough questions from lawmakers about that. Soon after DeJoy finished his testimony, the Biden administration announced three nominees to fill vacancies on the Postal Service Board of Governors. That's the body that hires and fires postmasters general. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: DeJoy was apologetic and at times combative in his testimony before members of the House Oversight Committee. He said that the status quo was acceptable to no one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOUIS DEJOY: Too many Americans were left waiting for weeks for important deliveries of mail and packages. This is unacceptable, and I apologize to those customers who felt the impact of our delays.

NAYLOR: Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were critical of the mail delays, citing complaints from constituents over bills arriving late, leading to late payments and late fees. Republican Congressman Bob Gibbs of Ohio said he's given up on the postal service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB GIBBS: Personally, I'm doing everything I can. I won't send payments through the mail anymore. That's how much confidence I've lost in the system.

NAYLOR: DeJoy is in the midst of developing a new 10-year strategic plan for the postal service. In an exchange with Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi, DeJoy acknowledged the plan may lead to slower deliveries of some first-class mail beyond a local area.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEJOY: There will be two-day mail class in our plan. Some percentage of that, where the reach is right now, may change.

RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI: So you're - what you're saying is that for local mail, first-class...

DEJOY: Well, you need to define local.

NAYLOR: Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts said DeJoy's plan didn't sound like it would work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN LYNCH: If the business plan for the post office is to deliver an inferior product, and we're in competition with FedEx and UPS and Amazon, that spells trouble. That leads me to believe that we would be going into a downward spiral. The solution can't be to not deliver the mail.

DEJOY: I would suggest that we are on a death spiral. We cannot - even with this legislation, we cannot continue to lose money.

NAYLOR: The legislation DeJoy referred to would end the Postal Service's unique requirement imposed by Congress to prefund its future retirees' health care, a requirement that has led to some $80 billion in red ink for the Postal Service. Congress is considering bipartisan legislation to allow postal retirees to qualify for Medicare. And he defended his proposed changes to delivery times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEJOY: So that the standards have not been met. The three- to five-day standards have been running at 80% for years. It's not reliable. You could sit here and think that I'm bringing all this damage to the Postal Service, but as I said earlier, the place was operationally faulty because of lack of investment and lack of ability to move forward, which is what we're trying to do.

NAYLOR: Democrats have been critical of DeJoy, who before becoming postmaster general, gave millions to Republicans, including former President Donald Trump. Many Democrats would like to see him replaced, but he made clear to Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper he's not going anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM COOPER: How much longer are you planning to stay?

DEJOY: A long time - get used to me.

NAYLOR: It's up to the Postal Board of Governors to appoint the postmaster general. The Biden administration today announced three nominees to fill vacancies on the board. They are Ron Stroman, who was the highest-ranking Black official at the post office before resigning last year; Amber McReynolds, who heads the National Vote At Home Institute; and Anton Hajjar, a former postal union official. If confirmed, the nominees will give the board a Democratic majority, which could move to replace DeJoy.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KARAVELO'S "MY GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.