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'This Is an Outrage—and It's Also Illegal': USPS Blocking Democratic Lawmakers From Inspecting Postal Facilities

"Postal facilities are not Area 51," said Rep. Bill Pascrell.

Mail clerks sort packages at a USPS Processing and Distribution Center on Thursday, May 14, 2020 in City of Industry, California. (Photo: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

U.S. Postal Service officials suggested Tuesday that ensuring Americans are able to get mail in a timely manner—as millions plan to vote by mail this year—is solely a Democratic priority, when they claimed members of Congress cannot inspect mail facilities because such visits would be a violation of the Hatch Act.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) have all attempted to visit postal facilities in recent weeks, only to be told they can't do so because federal elections are coming up in November and postal workers must be protected from inadvertently violating the Hatch Act.

The law prohibits civil servants from partaking in partisan activities. As the Washington Post reported Tuesday, USPS leaders cited also ethics rules dictating that the post office decline tour requests from anyone on a ballot within 45 days of a primary of general election—a guideline that would effectively bar 85% of members of Congress and thousands of state and local officials from inspecting postal facilities. The guidance, the Post noted, is limited by the caveat that elected officials cannot be prohibited from "appropriately representing their constituents."

As such, Pascrell accused USPS officials of illegally preventing him and other members of Congress from inspecting mail services—to ensure not only that ballots are delivered on time, but also that Americans receive their medications and other necessities in a timely manner.

"Postal facilities are not Area 51," Pascrell tweeted. "This is an outrage—and it's also illegal."

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's "degradation of the Post Office is a disgrace," Pascrell added, saying he still intends to visit a mail facility in Kearny, New Jersey. 

Earlier this year, DeJoy introduced sweeping changes to the mail service including cuts to overtime and the elimination of extra delivery trips, the removal of mail sorting machines and mailboxes, and reduced postal office hours. The changes drew outrage from voting rights advocates who said the Trump administration was attempting to sabotage the postal service amid an election that will be held largely by mail—especially after President Donald Trump explicitly acknowledged that his goal in blocking emergency USPS funding was to ensure "they don't have the money to do the universal mail-in voting."

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Despite the fact that he himself voted by mail in August—and that millions of Americans have voted by mail in states including solidly red Utah for years—the president has repeatedly claimed that mail in voting will result in an election "rigged" by Democrats. Several studies have found that election fraud—both by people who vote in person and via mail—is extremely rare. 

About 7% of all first class mail was delayed after the changes were implemented, according to an analysis by the office of Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). 

"USPS must allow my colleagues and I to do our jobs," Peters tweeted on Tuesday. 

DeJoy announced in August that he would not expand on his overhaul of the USPS, but did not commit to reversing his reforms. In recent weeks, federal courts including one in the swing state of Pennsylvania have struck down DeJoy's attempt to eliminate extra mail delivery trips by postal workers. 

When Pascrell's office requested access to a local USPS facility to inspect the handling of mail-in ballots, Scott Slusher of the USPS government liaison office replied that "the potential for an employee to knowingly or unwittingly violate the Hatch Act—and be held to account by another employee—is simply too great."

Huffman and Wasserman Schultz received similar replies to their requests. 

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) noted that while the Trump administration is citing the Hatch Act to keep lawmakers from inspecting mail-in ballots of post offices, it has "completely ignored it when its own officials have continuously violated it."

"To suddenly say a month and a half out of an election in an election year that they just can't do that—they can't visit as part of their constitutional responsibilities—is pretty bizarre to me," Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at POGO, told the Post. "Of course, our postal employees should be shielded from being swept up into a campaign while they're on the job... But saying a postal worker could somehow violate the Hatch Act because Bill Pascrell Jr. visits a postal facility to see what's going on because there are genuine concerns about the processing of mail and mail-in ballots, that's absurd."

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