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Don’t Breathe Easy About the Postal Service Yet

The postmaster general said he’ll stop screwing with the mail—but he left some wiggle room.

Two USPS mailboxes
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Faced with jittery citizens, increasingly pissed-off Democrats in Congress, and impending lawsuits from a large group of state attorneys general, the U.S. Postal Service today said that it would temporarily back off on the controversial policy changes that have led to a collective freakout about whether the Trump administration is actively attempting to sabotage the upcoming election by hampering mail-in voting. Unfortunately, the agency’s statement left it unclear whether it would actually reverse any the moves it has already made, or simply halt additional changes, making it difficult to tell whether it was announcing a substantive backtrack or simply making a PR play.

The Postal Service has been embroiled in controversy thanks to a number of recent cost-cutting measures imposed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a former logistics executive and major Republican donor, that have led to reported mail backlogs around the country. Shortly after being appointed earlier this year, DeJoy put new restrictions on overtime, potentially making it harder for carriers to complete their routes, and instructed truck drivers to leave mail behind in processing centers rather than take the (sometimes additional) time to ensure all of it was delivered. DeJoy also began decommissioning 10 percent of the agency’s letter-sorting machines, according to a grievance filed by the American Postal Workers Union, while post offices around the country have reportedly started cutting back their hours. (There was an outcry over reports that mailboxes were being removed, though that may have been an overblown reaction to a normal policy sparked by a poorly contextualized viral photo.)

Though USPS insisted that some of these moves had been put in motion before DeJoy’s tenure, they have led to quite a bit of public anguish among Democrats worried about the upcoming elections, especially after the president said he was specifically blocking additional funding to the Postal Service because he did not want universal vote by mail. The House has called an emergency hearing for later this month, where DeJoy has agreed to testify, and this week, state attorneys general across the country said they were readying suits challenging the service cuts.

With all of this scrutiny intensifying, the Postal Service says it will be putting its changes on ice, at least until after the election. In his statement today, DeJoy said he would pause “some long-standing operational initiatives” to “avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.” Specifically:

I want to assure all Americans of the following:

- Retail hours at Post Offices will not change.

- Mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are. No mail processing facilities will be closed.

- And we reassert that overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed.

In addition, effective Oct. 1, we will engage standby resources in all areas of our operations, including transportation, to satisfy any unforeseen demand.

The statement was, at best, mildly reassuring. “I think it raises more questions than it provides answers,” Ronald Stroman, the former deputy postmaster general who is now a senior fellow with the Democracy Fund, said on a press call during the afternoon. A few questions he pointed out:

• The statement says post offices’ hours will not change. But what about locations where hours have already been cut? Will those be reversed?

• It says processing equipment and mailboxes won’t be moved. But what about machines that have reportedly already been removed or disassembled?

• It says overtime will still be approved “as needed.” What does that even mean?

The key question, Stroman told reporters, was simply whether the Postal Service plans to process all of the mail it receives at its plants each day, send it to post offices, and deliver “all of the mail, all of the ballots that it has received that day, as opposed to leaving them.”

When I forwarded some of those questions on to USPS, the agency’s spokesman told me “I don’t have anything additional to pass along at this time.” They’ll presumably have to provide answers sometime soon, however: The state attorneys general say they are still going ahead with their lawsuits—including one that was filed Tuesday afternoon—which argued that USPS’ service changes didn’t go through the proper process of public notice and approval by the agency’s board of governors. So far, 21 states are on board. “We’re trying to stop Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service, which we believe to be an attack on the integrity of the election. It’s a straight-up attack on democracy,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh told the Washington Post.

Shockingly, that vague press release didn’t fend them off.