House bill seeks to allow members of Congress to visit USPS facilities
Washington Postal Scene by Bill McAllister
On Oct. 2, 2020, Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., made a request to visit the Merrifield mail-processing plant in his Northern Virginia district.
Normally, this would be the type of visit postal officials would welcome.
But postal officials said no to the lawmaker, who chairs the House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, a panel that oversees the United States Postal Service.
Connolly’s visit was too close to a federal election, they said, citing the Hatch Act, a 1939 law designed “to prevent pernicious political activities,” such as campaigning on federal property.
Connolly was not the first, or only, member of Congress to be barred from a postal facility.
In a widely reported event, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., was blocked by postal police officers from entering two Florida mail plants a month before Connolly’s effort in Merrifield, Va.
Connolly and Wasserman Schultz got a measure of revenge on May 11 when the House Committee on Oversight and Reform passed Connolly’s Ensuring Oversight Access at the Postal Service Act.
The bill simply declares, “The United States Postal Service may not prevent or otherwise inhibit any Member of Congress ... from accessing or visiting any Postal Service facility for official purposes, including accessing or visiting such a facility on or around the date of an election for federal office.”
The bill, listed as H.R. (House Resolution) 7674, now goes to the House floor where its passage seems likely despite Republican objections that the measure is a part of what Rep. James Comer, R.-Ky., calls “bogus claims” that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was out to disrupt voting by mail in the 2020 elections.
Not so, says Connolly, who has been in the fore of Democrats calling for DeJoy’s ouster.
The Virginia lawmaker argued his bill is about the “fundamental duty” of members of Congress to oversee federal activities in their districts.
The Merrifield center, near Connolly’s home, is one of the biggest mail-processing plants in the nation, he argued.
As for the Postal Service blocking his visit, Connolly called the Postal Service’s reasoning misguided and just plain wrong.
He backed his position with an opinion from the Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency that oversees enforcement of the Hatch Act.
In a letter dated Oct. 13, 2020, the Office of Special Counsel cited its 2018 opinion that “made clear that members of Congress who are candidates for partisan political office are not barred from visiting federal facilities to execute their official, oversight responsibilities to include receiving briefings, tours or other official information.”
“This position remains unchanged,” said the letter from Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act Unit.
At the May 11 House Oversight and Reform Committee’s markup of the act, Connolly cited a Postal Service policy that bars a member of Congress from postal facilities in a 45-day period before a federal election or primary.
Comer attacked the legislation as a Democratic effort to accuse DeJoy of attempting to slow delivery of election mail
“This is not about our postmaster general,” Connolly countered.
“We are trying to protect your rights,” he said.
Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer defended the policy of banning members of Congress from postal facilities, saying “it would place our employees at unreasonable risk of violating the Hatch Act.”
“For example, if during a tour by a partisan political candidate, a postal employee were to express well wishes for the candidate, or any opinion that could be deemed as directed toward the success or failure of the touring candidate, that employee would be in violation of the Hatch Act,” Partenheimer said.
As for touring a postal facility, Partenheimer said, “Those members may schedule a tour with us at any other time.”
“This guidance applies not just to tours, but to other Postal Service events as well, including First Day of Issue Stamp events and Post Office dedications,” Partenheimer said.
“The same prohibition does not apply to congressional staff,” he said.
“We are happy to engage with any members directly to address the concerns they have in lieu of a tour during this 45-day period and routinely hold field level congressional briefings with congressional staff,” Partenheimer said.
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