WASHINGTON: US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Tuesday (Aug 18) suspended all mail service changes until after the November election, bowing to an outcry by Democrats that the moves appeared to be an attempt to boost President Donald Trump's re-election chances.
The reversal follows complaints that the cuts could slow the handling of mail-in ballots, which could account for as many as half of all votes cast in November's election as the coronavirus pandemic raises fears of crowds.
Critics have accused the Republican president, trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in opinion polls, of trying to hobble the Postal Service to suppress mail-in voting.
Trump has repeatedly and without evidence claimed that an increase in mail-in ballots would lead to a surge in fraud, though Americans have long voted by mail.
Planned changes to the mail service that threatened to slow mail delivery - and in some cases, already have - include reductions in overtime, restrictions on extra mail transportation trips, and new mail sorting and delivery policies, enacted in an attempt to cut costs.
"I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded," DeJoy said in a statement, adding that the changes are to "avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail."
Reuters reported news of the suspension first on Tuesday.
DeJoy, a major political donor and ally of Trump, assumed the job in June.
He has faced pressure from multiple tiers of government, with the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives planning a rare Saturday session to pass a bill blocking cuts, and several states preparing lawsuits to block the maneuvers.
Trump said last week he was against Democratic efforts to include funds for the Postal Service and election infrastructure in coronavirus relief legislation because he wanted to limit mail-in voting during the pandemic.
The president kept up his attack on mail voting on Tuesday, speculating that delayed results could mean that the Nov 3 election would need to be held a second time.
"It will end up being a rigged election or they will never come out with an outcome," Trump told reporters on Tuesday. "They'll have to do it again, and nobody wants that."
One in four ballots in 2016 were cast by mail and Trump himself votes that way.
'HE GOT CAUGHT'
Multiple Democrats and union officials welcomed the news but said they were holding out for proof that DeJoy would take the actions he promised.
"I think he got caught. The pressure from the public and the unions made a difference," said Scott Adams, president of the American Postal Workers Union unit for southern Maine, which represents about 550 postal workers. "He only backed off because of the pressure for the vote by mail and the connections they pointed out between him and Trump."
Adams pointed out that DeJoy is not rolling back his decision to fire many senior Postal Service managers and change its internal organisational structure, which could have longer lasting impacts.
Earlier on Tuesday, states including Washington, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York said they were planning legal moves to block the Postal Service changes.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong asked what would happen to the cuts that have already taken place.
"Stopping further harm is not enough. #USPS needs to reverse previous changes too," Tong said on Twitter.
Several congressional Republicans this week had dismissed Democrats' concerns as a political attack on Trump.
MAIL BOXES TO REMAIN IN PLACE
DeJoy also said that the Postal Service will not change retail hours at post offices, that mail collection boxes will remain where they are, and that no mail processing facilities will be closed.
The reversal followed a lengthy call by the postal board of governors on Monday night, two people briefed on the matter said. They said the board told DeJoy to only focus on election integrity between now and election day, not operational changes.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday said she would go ahead with plans to pass a bill that would prevent the post office from reducing service levels below what they were in January.
DeJoy is scheduled to testify on Friday before the Republican-led Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, spokesmen for the committee and the Postal Service said. DeJoy also is scheduled to testify on Monday before the Democratic-led House Oversight and Reform Committee.