Nothing less than the survival of our democracy will be on the ballot in November, the country’s most high-profile Democrats warned the public in four days of stirring messages at this week’s Democratic National Convention. And unprecedented numbers of those ballots will be cast by mail, meaning the main threat to the integrity of the upcoming election may be the sudden widespread slowdown of the postal system, backed by President Donald Trump’s promise to deny post office funding in order to hamper mail-in voting.
Yet on Friday, as the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee questioned Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, Sen. Kamala Harris—the newly chosen Democratic nominee for vice president—was absent. And without her focused, prosecutorial style on their side, the committee Democrats struggled to make DeJoy explain why he’s launched a disruptive overhaul of postal operations just as voting by mail is about to begin, and whether he plans to do anything to restore normal delivery.
There was historical precedent for Harris to skip the hearing. It’s normal for a vice presidential nominee to put aside some of their congressional duties to campaign. In 2004, Sen. John Edwards stopped appearing at hearings after he was selected to be John Kerry’s running mate. The same was true of then-Sen. Joe Biden after he was selected as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008.
But in those past years, those candidates had to choose between actual physical campaigning and attending the hearings in person. Under the current coronavirus pandemic conditions, campaign events and hearings alike are being held by videoconferencing. And few of those hearings in the past were as important as Friday’s showdown with a former top Trump donor and now postmaster general who in his first few months in office has slowed mail service to a crawl while his boss has directly promised to starve the post office to harm the election.
Harris—a former prosecutor and attorney general who is often lauded as perhaps the best cross-examiner in the Senate—is just one of six Democratic members of the committee. Left to grill the witness on their own, the five remaining Democrats mostly watched as the members of the Republican majority used their time to literally praise DeJoy for his disastrous changes to the USPS. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the committee chairman, told DeJoy, “I think you should be commended for this type of initiative, not condemned.”
Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada did a good job of pushing back on DeJoy’s complete refusal to explain the data—if any—behind his decisions to curtail overtime, remove high-powered mail sorting machines, and start leaving mail behind on the workroom floor. Democrats for the most part, though, failed to elucidate what was behind those moves. This allowed the GOP members of the committee to attempt to portray the postmaster as a humble public servant being wrongfully targeted by a smear campaign, eliding the mail disruptions over the past month that have resulted in lengthy delays for prescription drugs for veterans, delayed arrivals of bills and paychecks, and even the deaths of baby chicks intended to be sent to small rural farms.
Harris submitted to DeJoy a five-page list of questions she wanted answered. Her Democratic colleagues did ask some of the questions Harris had put forward, such as whether he would continue to curtail overtime during the election season and whether he would treat election mail with expedited priority service as in years past. The problem was that DeJoy did not give direct answers to critical questions, for instance falsely denying that USPS has curtailed overtime. And there’s nothing to stop his written responses from being even more evasive.
Here’s where Harris’ skill as a follow-up questioner would have helped Democrats on the committee pin down DeJoy directly on what changes he intended to keep in place and what continued impact they are going to have on mail service headed into the election season. Instead, they got the postmaster general’s vague and mealy-mouthed responses that allow for potential continued disruptions of mail service.
So, what explains Harris’ absence? It seems as though the Biden-Harris ticket is very much planning to continue the campaign strategy that seemed to work so well for the Biden campaign throughout the summer: staying as out of sight as possible and letting President Donald Trump self-destruct amid the worst dual crises in recent American history.
Biden’s acceptance speech on Thursday received wide acclaim, even from normally critical Fox News. So it is understandable, perhaps, that the campaign wouldn’t want the No. 2 person on the ticket stepping on that positive buzz one morning later, even with her own positive buzz. There’s also the likelihood that if Harris were to have taken a starring role in Friday’s hearing, she would have been criticized no matter how well she performed. It seems likely that conservative media would have cast such an appearance as outside of normal precedent and chastised her for using her position in the Senate to advance her campaign.
Given, though, that this is literally the accusation against Donald Trump and Dejoy—that they are using the power of their offices not just to advance Trump’s campaign but to diminish the post office and threaten the vote that is the very core to our democracy—Harris would have been more than justified doing her important job of congressional oversight.