Q&A: U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small on coronavirus aid for the postal service

"This is about making sure every American, no matter where they live, has access to essential services," Rep. Xochitl Torres Small said.

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES — A military veteran in Carlsbad said he was on his last dose of heart medication and still waiting for his refill to arrive from a V.A. hospital in Albuquerque.

A Lordsburg resident reported that it took 10 days for a local utility bill to arrive.

These were just two of the complaints U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., said came in to her office from residents of her district, including military personnel, as recent operational changes at the United States Postal Service slowed mail delivery and reports nationwide detailed service hours being cut, mailboxes being removed or locked shut, and sorting machines at processing centers and delivery vehicles being carted away from local offices.

"We've heard ... there are four-day, five-day delays even within Albuquerque," Torres Small told the Las Cruces Sun-News. "It's really rippling across rural communities, whether it's small businesses trying to get their New Mexican products out to every state across the country, or whether it's senior citizens in Las Cruces who depend on the postal service for their medication in the midst of COVID-19."

Torres Small penned a letter Tuesday calling on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to "reconsider the recent changes to Postal Service operations and find bipartisan solutions" to operational costs and sagging revenue at the agency.

A USPS delivery vehicle sits being chain link at the rear of the Deming, N.M. post office on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

On Tuesday, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced he would join his counterparts in other states, a coalition of at least 20 by the afternoon, challenging operational changes made by DeJoy — nominally as cost-cutting measures — since DeJoy started on the job in June.

DeJoy is also a major political donor to President Donald Trump's re-election campaign and the Republican Party, and the president has repeated unsubstantiated claims that large numbers of mailed ballots will result in large-scale election fraud.

On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced she would call the Democratic-led House back into session to consider legislation aiding the USPS, and in the Republican-led Senate the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee called DeJoy to testify this Friday.

Democrats are seeking $25 billion in aid for the USPS as part of a new coronavirus relief package, with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows indicating over the weekend that Republicans might agree.

U.S. Postmaster General Louis Dejoy agreed to testify in August before House lawmakers.

In New Mexico, Balderas said states would file suit alleging that changes in postal service nationwide were illegally executed without required review by the Postal Regulatory Commission, a five-member body dominated by Trump appointees, as is the agency's board of governors.

By Tuesday afternoon, with DeJoy scheduled to answer questions before House and Senate committees in the coming days, the USPS announced that some of those changes would be suspended until after the Nov. 3 election, in which mailed ballots are expected to play a major role in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

FROM USA TODAY: Rural Americans depend on USPS delivery

Even as new developments were breaking, Torres Small, who represents New Mexico's second congressional district encompassing the southern part of the state, spoke with the Las Cruces Sun-News about what she hoped to hear from DeJoy and what actions Congress might take to ensure continuing service through Nov. 3 and beyond.

In the interview, Torres Small endorsed maintaining the USPS as a public service against the objective to privatize the agency's services. In 2019, Torres Small was a co-sponsor of the USPS Fairness Act, which ended a requirement since 2007 that the USPS pre-fund retiree benefits decades into the future.

As she faces a close re-election bid in November against Republican candidate Yvette Herrell, whom Torres Small narrowly defeated in 2018 in a district that typically elects Republican representatives, the congresswoman frequently emphasized the importance of bipartisan initiatives and highlighted her "no" vote in May on a $3 trillion coronavirus aid package that had the support of her fellow Democrats.

"I didn't feel like it focused enough on our common ground," Torres Small said of the bill.

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small appears at a press conference at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M., on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

Negotiations on a new relief package continue in Washington, including the $25 billion aid proposal, which Torres Small supports.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Las Cruces Sun-News: Even as we speak, more states are pledging to challenge the USPS changes in court, and DeJoy is halting at least some of those moves. What's your reaction? 

U.S. Xochitl Torres Small: I'm pleased that he has made the decision to suspend some of the decisions he was making, in terms of refusing to allow overtime if there was an increase in mail, which has caused a lot of these delays. There is still work to be done and I hope we can do that work together. The commitment was through Nov. 3, but I'm concerned about the essential services we rely on every day — before and after Nov. 3. 

We also need to make sure we're addressing the solvency challenges the U.S. Postal Service has. I'm pleased that some Republicans earlier this week also came out in support of the $25 billion investment that's been suggested by the (USPS) board of governors — appointees of President Donald Trump — who have identified that (amount) in order to keep these essential services that we all rely on.

LCSN: The USPS is a constitutionally mandated public service, but it is also required to be self-funding. Privatizing the postal service has been a policy objective of this administration. Do you think some of these changes and recent resistance to COVID-19 relief for the USPS are motivated by that objective?

XTS: I think it's essential we maintain the services that we have in our public United States Postal Service and that's why I've been fighting back, even before COVID-19, to make sure it has the tools it needs to do that. I was one of the original co-sponsors of legislation to get rid of unfair (pension) pre-funding mandates. It passed overwhelmingly in a bipartisan fashion, reinforcing that our postal service is for everyone, and that's what it's got to continue to be.

MORE:Postmaster says he will stop Postal Service changes until after election

LCSN: There is widespread concern that these changes are being made in an effort to hobble the Nov. 3 election. Do you think that's fair, or is there a wider, more complex story here?

XTS: I think there's a wider, more complex story. I think this is about making sure every American, no matter where they live, has access to essential services. What I want to make sure is that we focus on our areas of agreement. We can't let this turn into a political fight. The postal service is something that everyone relies on. 

LCSN: After today's announcements from the Postmaster General, how will the House's business on this issue change? What's next?

XTS: We should still vote on legislation to make sure these services are continued through the COVID-19 epidemic. We're going to still have senior citizens who don't want to have to go into a store, and want to get their medication by mail. We're going to still have folks who are relying on products mailed to them. That legislation is still important, and I think it's important we address that solvency challenge and fund the postal service with the $25 billion that was recommended by President Trump's appointees.

We also need to get back to the table and get another COVID-19 package. I'm deeply frustrated that it's taken so long for the House and Senate to come to terms. My frustration isn't just with the Republicans in the Senate, it's with members of my own party.

LCSN: Any major changes at USPS are supposed to go through the Postal Regulation Commission, whose member are appointed by sitting presidents. Would it be worth exploring a requirement that the body be bipartisan, the way some ethics commissions are structured?

XTS: I think we need to focus on it being nonpartisan and trying to find the best appointees that really are in it for the good of the postal service and the Americans who depend upon it. I think it's worth exploring how we achieve that goal ... but also I think the board of governors has done a good job in terms of identifying what the needs are for the postal service and providing a recommendation that has garnered the support of Republicans and Democrats alike. 

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.