New US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has said he has no plans to restore mailboxes or address other agency cuts made since he took over in June before the country’s election.
The comments have sparked fresh questions over how the Postal Service will ensure timely delivery of an expected surge of mail-in ballots for the November poll.
It was Mr DeJoy’s first time publicly answering questions since summer mail delays brought a public outcry.
Testifying before a Senate committee, the ally of President Donald Trump said it was his “sacred duty” that ballots arrive on time. But he told senators he did not yet have a plan for handling a crush of election mail.
From the White House, Mr Trump delivered fresh complaints over the mail-in ballots expected because of the coronavirus pandemic. As he did so, the House pushed ahead with plans for a rare Saturday vote to block the postal cutbacks and funnel $25 billion dollars (£19 billion) to shore up operations.
Mr DeJoy declared the Postal Service “is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation’s election mail securely and on-time”.
He distanced himself from Mr Trump’s objections about mail-in voting and said ensuring ballots arrived was his “No 1 priority between now and Election Day”.
The outcry over mail delays and warnings of political interference have put the Postal Service at the centre of the nation’s tumultuous election year, with Americans of both parties rallying around one of the nation’s oldest and most popular institutions.
The new postmaster general, a Trump donor who took the job at the start of summer to revamp the agency, is facing a backlash over changes since his arrival. Democrats warn his cost-cutting initiatives are causing an upheaval that threatens the election.
With mounting pressure, Mr DeJoy promised this week to postpone any further changes until after the election, saying he wanted to avoid even the perception of interference. A number of blue mailboxes have been removed, back-of-shop sorting equipment has been shut down and overtime hours have been limited.
But Mr DeJoy told senators he had no plan to restore the equipment, saying it was “not needed”.
And he stood by a new rule that limits late delivery trips, which several postal workers have said is a major cause of delivery delays. He vowed more changes are coming to postal operations after November.
Republican senator Mitt Romney said the public’s concern was understandable, particularly given Mr Trump’s efforts to stop universal mail-in ballots. Many states are encouraging mail-in voting in response to voters’ pandemic-related fears of going to crowded polling centers on Election Day.
Mr Trump has said he wants to block agency emergency funding that would help the service handle a great increase in mail-in ballots.
At Friday’s hearing, Mr DeJoy said he had had “no idea” equipment was being removed until the public outcry.
Now that it is widely known, Democrats pressed him for his plan to ensure election mail and ballots arrived on time.
“Do you have a more detailed plan?” said senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, asking for it by Sunday.
“I don’t think we’ll have a complete plan by Sunday night,” Mr DeJoy replied.
He is expected to testify before the House on Monday.