One of President Donald Trump’s most controversial officials is very likely to keep his job under the Biden administration: Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Over the summer, the former logistics executive and major Trump donor was at the center of a national firestorm when his cost-cutting measures contributed to a sudden degradation of mail service, which voter advocates feared would disenfranchise people relying on mail-in ballots during the pandemic. During that time, Democrats also spotlighted irregularities in the hiring of DeJoy and accused Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin of interfering in the process. Then, in the fall, it looked as if deliveries were again slowing down just in time for election. Despite the furor over his appointment and decisions, DeJoy is widely expected to stay in office well into Biden’s term.
During a U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors meeting in mid-November, DeJoy did not express any intention of stepping down and instead promised to release a proposal outlining his plans for reforming the agency moving forward. He also declared the USPS’ handling of mail-in ballots a success during the election, citing the more than 135 million ballots that the agency delivered to and from voters. Activists who have been on DeJoy’s case since the summer claim, instead, that it took a number of lawsuits and court orders to force USPS to halt DeJoy’s cost-cutting measures and ramp up mail delivery for ballots. An analysis by NBC also found that between 25,000 and 50,000 ballots properly postmarked to reach election offices in time for the election likely ended up coming in after state deadlines due to poor performance by USPS. Biden’s margin of victory was large enough that these late ballots didn’t end up affecting the final result, though it’s unclear whether these delays could have affected down-ballot races.
While DeJoy was a longtime GOP donor, the role of postmaster general usually doesn’t have a partisan tint: Most people who serve in the role are longtime postal employees. Biden won’t have the power to usher in a replacement. Only the Postal Service Board of Governors, which oversees USPS, can hire and fire the postmaster general. The president, instead, nominates people to the Board of Governors, and the Senate confirms them. The six governors currently sitting on the board were all nominated by Trump; a Senate standoff in 2015 and 2016 made it such that the board was vacant when President Barack Obama left office. The earliest that any of Trump’s Republican picks will leave is in October 2022, when two of their terms will end. If Democrats do manage to eke out a Senate majority, they could theoretically rush through three of Biden’s nominees, since the board can have up to nine members. However, industry experts and congressional aides told ABC that they wouldn’t expect Biden to prioritize spending his political capital on the Board of Governors.
Furthermore, when Biden assumes office, there might not be a whole lot he can do to influence DeJoy and the direction of USPS. “The system is somewhat designed for this. The Postal Service is supposed to be immune from political pressures, or at least daily political pressures,” said Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute. One tool the new administration might be able to use, though, is the Treasury Department’s discretion in extending credit to the USPS. “The Treasury secretary does have some leverage over the postmaster general and over Postal Service operations,” Steidler said.
DeJoy will continue to face lawsuits that activists have brought against him and USPS. Some of these lawsuits were narrowly focused on the agency’s performance during the election and may wrap up soon, while others take a more expansive look at USPS’ overall operations since DeJoy came to power. “Paying your bills, getting your medication, there’s a lot of important mail other than election mail,” said Allison Zieve, an attorney representing the NAACP in a federal case against USPS in D.C. “If they continue to slow down the mail for whatever reason, it’s just a huge problem for a lot of people.” There are concerns, though, that USPS will escape the level of scrutiny it’s faced over the last few months now that the election is over and Trump is on his way out. “There is a lot of fear in the union community that as soon as the administration transitions, their issues are not going to be sexy anymore. And they’re right—they should be afraid of that,” said J. Remy Green, an attorney representing a group of voters suing USPS in New York. “Without the high-profile nature of the election, I think a lot of the legal support that is there is going to dry up.”
Steidler contends that it might be wiser for Democrats to reconcile with DeJoy in order to pass much-needed reforms at USPS like integrating workers’ retiree health benefits into Medicare, expanding the vehicle fleet, and eliminating pension prefunding requirements that have financially constrained the agency. USPS has notably appealed a number of court orders blocking DeJoy’s cost-cutting measures. But Steidler doesn’t think that DeJoy will try to reinstate all of the changes he initially implemented at USPS during the summer, which included overtime cuts. “That’s just a nonstarter. That would be a disaster politically for him to go there,” said Steidler. “You still have Democrats in control of the House, and they’d call him up [for a hearing] the next day if he attempted to do that again.” Remember how that went?