WASHINGTON — Postmaster General Louis DeJoy asked congressional appropriators Thursday for more money to support his still-unreleased strategic plan for the nation’s mail agency, and tried to reset expectations for slower but more consistent service.
Testifying before the House Appropriations subcommittee on financial service, DeJoy said the U.S. Postal Service needs to “recast that expectation of what it is that we’re able to do” to stem financial losses. Lawmakers had previously questioned DeJoy on a Washington Post report that he would stop flying first-class mail cross-country and planned to eliminate a speedier category of first-class mail to cut costs and help the agency make delivery windows.
DeJoy confirmed those plans Thursday, and said they were a necessary evolution for an agency both struggling to right its balance sheet, but also define its core services in an era of less paper and more packages.
“It does involve a service standard change,” DeJoy said of his plan. “We cannot go to California from New York in three days without going on planes, and we don’t own planes.”
Residential and businesses customers have been complaining about late and inconsistent mail service for months. Credit card companies and utilities have noticed an uptick in consumer calls about late-arriving bills and the resulting late fees and interest penalties. Mail-order pharmacies have instructed patients to put in their refill orders earlier to allow for the possibility of delivery delays.
Meanwhile, large-scale mailers, such as banks and insurance companies, are urging clients to switch to paperless communication, a shift that would further undercut the Postal Service’s biggest profit stream while the agency continues to struggle financially.
The hearing, during which DeJoy apologized three times for mail delays and past fiery exchanges before other congressional panels, marked his second House hearing in three weeks. On Feb. 24, he instructed members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee to “get used to me” during opening statements. Shortly after the hearing ended President Biden announced his three nominees to the Postal Service’s governing board — enough to potentially give Democrats the votes for DeJoy’s ouster.
On Thursday, the postmaster general struck a more conciliatory tone and repeatedly asked members for more resources, couched in what he described as a shared goal to improve mail delivery. He also said the agency would push the Biden administration to credit the Postal Service with years of pension overpayments, which could take $100 billion worth of obligations off its balance sheet.
“I understand all your concerns and, look, I can assure you we’re trying to address them,” DeJoy told Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., after she asked about working conditions in local post offices, “but pulling money away from us is not is really not going to help.”
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., asked DeJoy to assign himself a grade for his 10 months in office. DeJoy awarded himself an “A” for “bringing strategy and planning and effort.” Pocan shot back that service declines, including historically poor on-time delivery rates during the holiday season, were hardly deserving of high marks. But later, during a subsequent round of questioning, he gave DeJoy an “A” of his own while discussing a proposal to eliminate a burdensome retiree health care obligation, then praised his selection of Wisconsin-based firm to manufacture the agency’s new delivery fleet.
That vehicle contract is one of the few components of the strategic plan that the postmaster general has publicly discussed. He said Thursday that his initiatives would be based on continued growth in the agency’s package business, which has seen volumes spike during the pandemic as homebound consumers dive into e-commerce. That’s caused the agency to struggle — it is much more adept at moving paper than boxes, experts say — but also presented an opportunity for its future, DeJoy said.
“That’s the strength of the organization,” he said. “And that’s part of why I’m optimistic about how we go about fixing it.”
DeJoy in written testimony asked Congress to relax restrictions on the use of $7.4 billion in emergency pandemic funds that could be used to finance investments in his plan for new vehicles and package-sorting machines. Rep. Jared Huffman on Monday introduced a separate bill to provide the Postal Service $6 billion for its vehicle fleet, provided 75% of the trucks were electric.
DeJoy told the Oversight Committee last month that the agency only planned for 10% of its new fleet to be electric, but said Thursday that the agency was “very, very excited” about an electric fleet.
“It seems that we’ve tied our hands if we purchase a fleet that’s really meant for the last 100 years,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. “And by the time this fleet will have served its purpose, very few cars will be operating in the same manner.”
The 10% figure, DeJoy responded, was the minimum required upfront commitment to electric vehicles for Oshkosh Defense, which was awarded the contract in February, to stand up production capabilities for both electric and gas-powered vehicles.
“If we were able to get the funding, we would be able to maybe, of the first buy, go 50 percent electric,” DeJoy said.
DeJoy last week announced provisions to reorganize the mail agency’s geographic reporting structure, a move that industry experts worry will create new levels of red tape. It also led Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., a retired postal worker, to scold DeJoy for not vetting his changes through Congress before announcing them, insisting elected officials could help craft policies while also respecting the Postal Service’s independence.
“Honestly, the Postal Service of today and the condition we are in is not the Postal Service of 2008 when you retired,” DeJoy responded.
“I am not naive,” Lawrence fired back, calling DeJoy “arrogant” during his previous appearances before the House. “When I left the Postal Service, I came to Congress and have had responsibility for eight years of the operations of the Postal Service and had my thumbprint on what’s going on. So please don’t imply that I’m ignorant to what’s going on.”
But the exchange yielded what appeared to be some of the first signs of public goodwill between DeJoy, a former logistics executive and major Republican financier, and House Democrats in months. DeJoy later said he was “embarrassed” by his behavior during previous hearings, and told Lawrence he would meet with congressional leaders on postal policy about his proposal.
“I am a human being,” he said, “and I am trying to do the right thing.”