Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats
Credit: House Democrats/Flickr

By now, it’s no secret that Trump and his allies are trying to sabotage the Postal Service. The question is what Democrats will do in response.

Republicans have had their crosshairs on the USPS for decades now, and for the usual conservative reasons: it’s a national service that they would prefer be wholly privatized and parceled off for profit. But the circumstances around the COVID pandemic and the 2020 election make the continued ability of the Postal Service to handle ballots in a timely manner a life-or-death battle for American democracy itself.

Put bluntly, Democrats do better in elections the more people vote; the pandemic makes voting in person more dangerous; universal mail voting increases voter turnout and bypasses a variety of traditional conservative voter suppression strategies; and Donald Trump has convinced a large number of Republicans to avoid mail voting, such that most of the mail-in vote is likely to come from Democratic voters. Trump and his Republican allies are currently performing poorly in public polling, further incentivizing them to try to narrow the electorate through suppression of opposing communities. Trump and McConnell are refusing to allow money to fund the Postal Service as part of a new COVID relief package, and Trump just admitted to doing so as part of an attempt to hamper mail-in voting. His top economic adviser Larry Kudlow also went on TV to say that “So much of the Democratic asks [on stimulus] are really liberal-left wish-lists—voting rights, aid to aliens—that’s not our game.”

So Trump Republicans aren’t even trying to hide the corruption here. And indeed, reports of sabotage are already coming in fast, from widespread reports of the removal of mailboxes forcing the USPS to say it would stop doing so, to the scrapping of 671 mail sorting machines suspiciously located mostly in contested swing states. So what are Democrats doing in response?

Last week most of the House Democratic caucus sent a letter to Trump’s new Postmaster General and big Republican donor Louis DeJoy demanding that he roll back a number of curiously timed operational changes guaranteed to slow down mail service. More recently and effectively, Senator Elizabeth Warren (along with House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney and others) spearheaded a successful effort encouraging the Postal Service’s inspector general to review both the policy changes and DeJoy’s potential conflicts of interest resulting from his ownership of significant amounts of stock in USPS competitors. New Jersey Democratic Congressmember Bill Pascrell, Jr, made a criminal referral to the New Jersey Attorney General concerning possible violations of state law regarding the USPS and elections. Yesterday House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer released a statement opposing Trump’s attempted demolition of the USPS, and tweeted the following:

The Postal Service is a pillar of American Democracy. President Trump’s assault on @USPS threatens to starve it of the funds that it needs to deliver Americans’ absentee ballots. The President’s actions and even his own words confirm: he needs to cheat to win. #DontMessWithUSPS

The problem is that, while Warren and Maloney have accomplished the most on this issue by forcing an internal investigation within the Postal Service, and individual legislators can and should certainly attempt a recourse to accountability for state law violations, House Democratic Leadership are barely using the powers available to them in forcing public attention and transparency here.

The House has the legal right to investigate and issue subpoenas to all those involved, including and especially Postmaster General DeJoy himself. The Trump administration would almost certainly refuse to honor the subpoena, at which point House Democrats would be well within their legal right to send Capitol Police to arrest the Postmaster General and force him to testify. But even stopping short of that potential constitutional crisis, conducting the investigation and issuing the subpoena would shine a bright spotlight–one that would in turn encourage Postal Service employees to tell all they know about what is happening internally. Even if nothing could be proven directly, it would minimize the potential for mischief through direct application of sunlight.

Given the current polling, it is unlikely that Donald Trump will escape electoral accountability for his disastrous presidency if Americans are allowed to vote freely and fairly. Democratic leaders therefore need to do everything legally within their power to ensure the integrity of the election itself. All too often, longtime Democratic officials act like the patient custodians of a normative democracy in exile during the Trump Aberration, rather than the only empowered opposition to a totalitarian insurrection engaged in a one-sided cold civil war.

Having set its ground rules for COVID negotiations, the House should be engaged in nonstop investigations and subpoenas from now through election day and beyond–not as a political gimmick, but as a way of blockading to the maximum extent possible the various attempts of Trump and his cronies to subvert the electoral comeuppance that awaits them. Those investigations and subpoenas should start with Postmaster General DeJoy.

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Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.