WASHINGTON — A former high-ranking official who previously oversaw the leadership of the U.S. Postal Service said Tuesday that while she applauds Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s latest commitment to delay proposed changes to mail services, she is still worried about the impact on mail-in voting this November.
Austin resident Carolyn Lewis, a George W. Bush-era presidential appointee and 2009 chair of the USPS board of governors, told The Texas Tribune in a series of email and phone interviews on Monday and Tuesday that she has been disturbed by reports of sweeping, cost-cutting measures that led to a slowdown in the mail and raised concerns that the postal service will not be able to handle an influx of mailed-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Mr. DeJoy is failing to fulfill the mission of the USPS to provide prompt and reliable mail delivery at a time when that mission is as important as it has ever been," said Lewis, who served on the USPS Board of Governors from 2004 to 2010, in a Monday email interview with the Tribune. "He is also destroying confidence in the organization that will only make its long-term viability even harder to achieve. If he does not change course immediately I hope the [board of governors] makes a change in leadership quickly."
DeJoy allayed some of Lewis’ concerns on Tuesday when he reversed course and announced he would pause plans to change mail services until after the election.
“To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded,” DeJoy said in a statement, promising that retail hours at post offices would not change, overtime for workers would still be approved, and no mail processing facilities would be closed.
DeJoy’s actions — that reportedly included cutting overtime and sorting machines a few months out from the presidential election — have undermined American confidence that the mail service can handle voting by mail amid a public health crisis, Lewis said.
Lewis said she remains concerned that DeJoy has not clarified what class of mail service will be used for delivering ballots, and how long it will take those ballots to travel.
Thanks to a 1993 federal law, the USPS delivers mail-in ballots at the cheaper nonprofit rate. But within the mail service, ballots are treated as First Class mail, even so much as they now have bar code designations to allow them to be flagged for faster travel, according to the New York Times.
First Class mail generally travels in two to four days, while nonprofit rate delivery can take as long as 10 days.
“Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards,” DeJoy said in his Tuesday statement.
Lewis said DeJoy needs to be more specific.
“He needs to clarify that it is First Class standards,” she said. “If it is not First Class mail standards, that’s not good enough.”
Lewis is a Texas businesswoman who formerly owned an educational manufacturing company. In 2003, Bush appointed her to a presidential commission to examine the modernization of the post office. In 2004, he appointed her to serve on the USPS board of governors in an emergency recess. The Senate eventually confirmed her and she served in that role until 2010. In 2009, she guided the postal service through the Great Recession as the board's chair.
The USPS board of governors “is comparable to a board of directors of a publicly held corporation,” according to the USPS website.
Lewis' tenure also marked a moment of transition for the postal service. With the onset of modern technology, like email, the era marked a call for modernization in order to preserve the USPS' mission to deliver the mail to all reaches of the country in a timely fashion, while also remaining financially viable.
But DeJoy's approach to modernization "feels different in several ways," she said.
Alluding to a dysfunctional confirmation process within the U.S. Senate that for the last 10 years left gaping vacancies on the board, Lewis said that the postmaster general and the current board members "are very new and have none of the institutional knowledge that is usually there when you have more staggered terms of Governors."
"Yet they seem to be rushing ahead to make changes before having time to fully understand the impact of those changes on all the stakeholders and there are many: employees, mailers, Congress and the American public," she said.
She also has not seen "evidence that the current leadership has communicated their overall plan and goals that are driving the specific actions they are taking," and "there is clearly not a priority on ensuring prompt and reliable mail delivery or fulfilling the mission" of the USPS.
"I do not know for certain the motivation of the [postmaster general] and the Governors, but their actions are certainly inviting questions, and legitimately so," she added.
DeJoy has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to committees dedicated to reelecting President Donald Trump in November and to other Republicans running for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
DeJoy is expected to appear before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Friday and the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Monday. Two Texans serve on that committee, Republican U.S. Reps. Michael Cloud, of Victoria, and Chip Roy, of Austin.
Capitol Hill Democrats say they are worried that DeJoy’s statement on Tuesday didn’t address whether he will restore cuts already implemented. House members will return to the Capitol from August recess — an unprecedented move in modern memory — to vote on a bill that will restore the USPS to how it functioned at the beginning of this year.
Lewis also said that the eve of a presidential election is not the time to disrupt the mail service.
"Management has plenty of time after the election and holiday season to address operating efficiency," she said. "Right now all resources of the organization need to be focused on improving service and ensuring timely mail delivery during the next few months."
She said it is normal for the USPS to have surpluses of equipment due to shifting population densities. She could not attest to whether the reported shifts of equipment were merited but said "even if they are indeed surplus, the optics of moving them right now are terrible.”"
Nine members of the USPS board of governors are appointed by the president, and serve with the consent of the Senate. The postmaster general and his or her deputy serve at the pleasure of the board and additionally serve as governors. Presidential-appointed governors serve terms of seven years and only as many as five governors may be members of one political party.
Despite high hopes in 2006 when Bush and Congress aimed to overhaul USPS leadership, it has been a highly dysfunctional pocket of government due to U.S. Senate gridlock. The board has not functioned with a full team of appointees in 10 years and has been unable to make quorum at points over the last decade.
Since 2016, Lewis donated to Democratic candidates and the Republican anti-Trump group The Lincoln Project. But prior to that election, she said she considered herself to be a non-partisan official.
Another former member of the board of governors, David Fineman, has made the television rounds to express similar criticisms of the current USPS leadership.
Matthew Watkins contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Carolyn Lewis and The New York times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.