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Beware the Ides of August: This year it’s the postal service

Chad Pergram

Beware the “Ides of August.”

That’s what we often write in this space when the eighth month on the Gregorian calendar comes round.

Shakespeare warned “Beware the Ides of March” in Julius Caesar. But anyone who’s ever spent any time on Capitol Hill knows “Beware the Ides of August.” August is the most volatile month of the 12.

And sure enough, the Ides of August – Aug. 15th - disrupted Congress again.

That’s when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., decided to bring the House back to session to consider legislation to infuse the United States Postal Service (USPS) with a jolt of cash during the pandemic. There’s concern about a deluge of mail-in ballots ahead of the November election.

Things always go a little haywire in August on Capitol Hill. It’s supposed to be the “quiet month.” Even more stagnant than Christmas time. But any political veteran knows the “August recess” is just a farce. Subterfuge. A charade. It doesn’t really work that way. Weird things happen in August, forcing everyone to swing into action.

And, something peculiar usually unfolds right on August 15. Consider it was August 15, 2017 when President Trump infamously declared there was “blame on both sides” after the melee in Charlottesville, VA.

This year, the House of Representatives left town in late July. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he’d recall members to vote if and when there was an agreement on a coronavirus bill. Coronavirus negotiations crashed and burned some days later. A taxi squad of senators hung around the Capitol for a few days last week. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sent the same message. He’d recall senators to Capitol Hill if the sides reached a coronavirus accord.

But a lot happens in August. If an issue doesn’t seem quite ripe, members head home.

Then, bam. Events dictate otherwise.

Sometimes it takes shooing all of the members out of the Capitol for an issue to finally gurgle up, forcing lawmakers to return. That’s exactly what happened this time.

President Trump spurred Democrats to move.

“They want $25 billion for the Post Office. Now, they need that money in order to have the Post Office work so it can take in all of these millions of ballots,” said the president during an interview with Fox Business News. “They want $25 billion for the Post Office because the Post Office is going to have to go to town to get these ridiculous ballots in. You know, there’s nothing wrong with getting out and voting.”

“This kind of suppression comes straight out of a dictator’s playbook,” warned Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “This is a dangerous attack on our nation and our democracy.”

House Democrats were starting to hear from constituents. Pelosi indicated she didn’t plan to do a “piecemeal” coronavirus bill. She wanted the full order. Money for the Postal Service. Money for state and local governments. An extra $600 a week for those unemployed. Assistance for schools.

But there was no deal to be had.

The House approved its $3 trillion bill in May. But everything on Capitol Hill devolved into a stasis with no agreement in sight.

Democrats began sweating that the House wasn’t doing enough. They worried about what they perceived the president was doing with the Postal Service – and whether Postmaster Louis DeJoy was doing Trump’s bidding. They also worried about constituents who rely on the mail for medications and services. The Social Security Administration sends out 850,000 paper checks to recipients each month.

Rank and file Democrats got in the ear of Pelosi and other top Democrats, begging them for action.

Pelosi convened a meeting of the House Democratic brain trust Saturday, Aug. 15. The Ides of August. Pelosi decided to recall the House this month to tackle the Postal Service issue.

“President Trump and his hand-selected Postmaster General, Mr. DeJoy, have launched an unprecedented assault on the capability of the U.S. Postal Service, in order to suppress the vote in November,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who chairs a panel overseeing USPS. “Congress needs to intervene and needs to act promptly.”

In some respects, it seemed as though Trump touched one of the proverbial “third rails” of politics. In other words, the “third rail” is electrified on a subway line. You touch it at your own peril. For decades, political observers considered Social Security to be the “third rail.” Thus, politicians wouldn’t touch it. But, President Trump recently signed an executive order that would suspend collection of the payroll tax – used to fund Social Security. He then spoke of placing the tax on a permanent holiday. That prompted howls of protests as people worried about the long-term viability of Social Security.

Democrats believe the President then touched another perceived third rail: the U.S. mail.

“The President, in desperation, has actually touched the third rail of politics. Not once but twice,” said Connolly. “I don’t think anyone understood the Postal Service would also be the third rail of politics, in part because the Postal Service has never been controversial. But now it’s a screaming headline. In every cable news show and in every newspaper in America.”

This is not just a “Democratic” issue.

Many Congressional Republicans are worried about the viability of the Postal Service, too. Especially those who represent rural constituencies in sprawling states which depend on the mail. Consider GOP senators facing competitive re-election bids this fall: Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and, to a lesser degree, Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Sullivan’s race isn’t as competitive as the others. But Alaska is more heavily dependent on the Postal Service because of its geography. Watch to see if those senators begin to demand action on the Postal Service.

McConnell’s home state may qualify, too. But so far, McConnell’s confident in the Postal Service.

“The Postal Service is going to be just fine. We’re going to make sure that the ability to function going into the election is not adversely affected,” said McConnell.

DeJoy agreed to testify before the House Oversight Committee on Monday. Democrats then lobbed volleys at Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ron Johnson (R-WI). Democrats argued that Johnson was too consumed by his investigation of Crossfire Hurricane and Russia to be bothered with summoning DeJoy to testify.

Johnson pre-empted House Democrats by slating a virtual session with DeJoy for Friday. Johnson said he “wanted to give the PMG (Postmaster General) an opportunity to tell his side of the story before he appeared before a hostile House committee.”

Meantime, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., dismissed Democratic allegations that President Trump was trying to sabotage the Postal Service in an effort to win the election.

“This is very irresponsible,” said Comer on Fox. “This is a baseless conspiracy theory.”

Republicans may not like the Democratic supposition that the president and DeJoy are trying to cast doubts on the election via the mail. But historically, Republicans often benefit greatly from mail-in voting. And Republicans can’t appear to ignore problems with USPS. As Connolly said, the Postal Service quickly emerged as one of those “third rails” of politics.

Various issues often consume the August recess – constituting the “Beware the Ides of August” proverb.

President Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974. Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. A big vote on the debt ceiling in August, 2011. Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans in August, 2006. All exhibits to the “Ides of August” maxim.

You never quite know what’s coming in August in politics. But this year, it’s the Postal Service.

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