AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service have raised many questions about the leadership of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, questions he had to answer at a Senate hearing today. DeJoy's plans for an overhaul at the agency have brought a swift political backlash over the past two weeks. At some points, the hearing was predictably tense and predictably focused on how changes at the post office might affect voting by mail during this pandemic.
Joining us now is NPR's Miles Parks. He's been following this story. And, Miles, to begin, what happened today? - because I know DeJoy said earlier this week that he was pausing these plans he had for an agency overhaul until after the election. Did he have any more to say about that?
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Right. Yeah. He reiterated also that he still hopes to put those major changes in place for money reasons. Remember; this is an agency that lost $9 billion last year, and it's on its way to losing another 9 billion or more this year. He says those changes are still coming. They just have to wait a few months. But he also took the chance today to actually defend himself. Basically, he says a lot of the changes that have gotten so much of the pushback over the last couple of weeks, the most high-profile one being about this decision to remove high-speed mail sorting machines - he says they really weren't his decision. They were out of his hands. He says he heard about that one and the decision to remove some of the blue mailboxes that we've been hearing so much about - he heard about those from media reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LOUIS DEJOY: Well, the collection boxes and this machine close-down - I was made aware when everybody else was made aware.
PARKS: Now, some of those changes are routine, as DeJoy pointed out. But under his leadership, significantly more of those high-speed sorting machines have been put out of commission. The Washington Post reported that yesterday. And DeJoy reiterated those machines are not going to be brought back online, which is really frustrating for a lot of Democrats.
CORNISH: So many of the Democrats have been saying that they're worried that if USPS can't handle a surge in mail-in ballots that there will be disenfranchised voters. What did DeJoy have to say about election mail?
PARKS: Right. And obviously, those worries were kind of realized a week or two ago, when President Trump made those comments where he essentially tied USPS funding to the idea of hampering mail voting expansions. But DeJoy really pushed back on that idea today. He made a pledge that election mail is going to be his top priority as part of his opening remarks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DEJOY: As we head into the election season, I want to assure this committee and the American public that the Postal Service is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation's election mail securely and on time. This sacred duty is my No. 1 priority between now and Election Day.
PARKS: There had been fears DeJoy was going to actually change how election mail was going to be processed. Basically, in the past, election mail had been treated as first-class mail but often charged at a lower rate. And people were scared that he was going to end that, but he confirmed today that that would still be the case. No change is coming there, which will probably ease a lot of the worries, at least from local and state election officials who were worried about how they were going to pay for more first-class mail.
CORNISH: Does that mean it will ease the worries for voters? I mean, should they be concerned about their ballots as they start receiving them?
PARKS: I'm not sure necessarily that today's hearing is going to ease the worries of voters considering how worried people have been over the last couple weeks. But DeJoy said voters shouldn't be scared, something he made a point of talking about and something even people who have been critical of his leadership say is just how much capacity the Postal Service has. You know, even if a hundred or 125 million people choose to vote by mail in the fall, ballots will still be a tiny fraction of, you know, the overall mail capacity. The Postal Service handles more than 430 million pieces of mail every single day.
But he did say something I've heard a lot from local election officials as well, which is vote early. Basically, he said, we can't do this super-quickly. Voters just need to make sure they're turning their ballots in more than a week in advance of state deadlines.
CORNISH: What should we expect from his testimony before the House Oversight Committee that's happening on Monday?
PARKS: I think Democrats are definitely going to press him more about what he knew and when he knew it. You know, his answers were really unsatisfactory to Democrats about the fact that he didn't know about these high-speed sorting machines and the collection of mailboxes. Also, overtime has been a high-profile issue. Democrats are going to press him on all of those things.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Miles Parks.
PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.