Current Plans Call for a New Fleet of Gas-Powered Vehicles—But Why Not All-Electric?
House Republicans oppose measures that would save $46 billion in postal employee benefits and up to $17 billion in mail truck operating costs by requiring the new trucks to run on electricity rather than gas.
The actions of Republicans during a mark-up of U.S. Postal Service legislation cast doubt on a basic theme of the party. They say that their positions are driven by fiscal responsibility and low costs for government services. Of course, you wouldn’t know that because news coverage of the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing was virtually nonexistent.
The anti-saving money theme emerged when committee Democrats acted to support President Joe Biden’s January Executive Order directing “federal agencies to procure carbon pollution-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles.”
That directive is being ignored by the Postal Service, a federally owned corporation funded entirely by the revenue it brings from delivering letters and packages.
Maloney called this one of the ‘common sense, simple provisions that should have bipartisan support.’
Electricity will power less than 10% of the planned fleet of mail delivery vehicles and perhaps none. Democrats denounced Postal Service plans to buy 231,000 “outdated, dangerous, and gas-guzzling” vehicles instead of powering them with electricity as part of Biden’s climate change agenda.
Democrats also moved to require the Postal Service to help voters track ballots from the time they are mailed to when they are received by local elections officials. This is a service postal customers can already get for many kinds of packages and letters.
Adding tracking makes sense. Consider all the baseless claims by Republicans about mail-in voting being riddled with fraud and their efforts to discourage mail-in voting for this reason.
The committee initially had a bipartisan agreement to pass the Postal Service Reform Act. But when amendments were introduced to update the postal fleet to electric vehicles and to secure the elections ahead of 2022, the House quickly became divided, with Republicans “strongly objecting” on both issues.
A Dumpster Fire
Postal carriers became front-line essential workers during the pandemic. Tens of thousands of exposed workers needed to quarantine, disrupting some mail delivery. But the risk of getting Covid is not the only way postal workers put their lives on the line daily.
Aging delivery trucks keep catching on fire, a July 2020 report from Vice showed. From May 2014 to July 2020, a mail truck caught fire on average every five days. But postal workers kept getting into the vehicles which on average are 25 years old.
Of the 407 vehicles which caught fire in those six years, 125 were so thoroughly destroyed that investigators were unable to identify why the fires occurred.
In 26 incidents, letter carriers went into the burning trucks to save as much mail as they could.
It’s clearly evident the Postal Service desperately needs and deserves a significant overhaul of its fleet. But that may be years off despite a $6 billion contract awarded to a Wisconsin defense contractor with a troubled history of cost overruns, poorly performing vehicles, weak finances and preferential treatment in the government procurement process.
When Trump-backed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy unveiled his plans in late February to purchase a fleet of mail delivery vans, Congress questioned why he disregarded the Biden administration’s directive to move to electric vehicles. Lawmakers have called for an SEC investigation into a $54 million stock purchase made a day before DeJoy announced that he had awarded Oshkosh Corp. the contract worth up to $6 billion.
Questioned during a March congressional hearing, DeJoy let slip that at least 90% of trucks would be gasoline-powered. However, it’s doubtful that any of the vehicles would be electric. DeJoy’s pick, the combat vehicle maker Oshkosh Defense, in its 2020 annual report, stated that it was not even capable of producing electric vehicles.
“We may not have the expertise or resources to successfully address these pressures” to build EVs “on a cost-effective basis or at all,” the company disclosed.
My colleague Jillian S. Ambroz reported in early March on DeJoy’s ridiculous assertion that mail delivery trucks built with gasoline engines could eventually be retrofitted to run on battery power. Ambroz later reported on Oshkosh Defense, for now the winner of the Postal Service fleet contract, having troubles building military vehicles as promised and on budget.
Where Were Ford and GM?
One of the mysteries of the Postal Service fleet contract is why neither Ford nor General Motors bid for the work. Both companies make trucks. Both also say they are racing to make only non-fossil fuel vehicles, and just this month Ford unveiled an electric version of its F-150 truck, the nation’s No. 1 selling automobile.
When pressed why he was committing to a fleet using fossil fuels, DeJoy cited the Postal Service’s inability to afford the upgrade to electric vehicles. However, Democrats argue that purchasing a gas-guzzling fleet would not only be irresponsible to the planet but costs more money over the life of the fleet.
The average letter carrier truck is driven 17 miles per day, easily within the range of even modest-sized battery packs. EVs don’t require costly engine maintenance, oil changes and the like, making them cost-efficient. That would mean fewer jobs or hiring truck mechanics.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment to the postal bill to provide the $8 billion in upfront money that DeJoy had said is needed to acquire a fleet of electric vehicles and make other improvements. Lynch’s bill made the funding contingent on at least 75% of the new trucks being electric or other zero-emission vehicles.
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the ranking member, opposed the amendment. Comer said he opposed political people trying “to further mandate Green New Deal type policies on these federal agencies.”
The GOP opposition seems to be motivated more by Mitch McConnell’s vow to oppose Biden’s agenda 100% than with life cycle costs and efficiency in government. Republicans also claimed that the $8 billion dollar investment was a fiscal issue, but the math doesn’t back up the arguments.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said that while initial costs for EV trucks are greater, tremendous savings in maintenance and gas costs more than offset the initial expense.
“We were spending $2 billion dollars a year on maintenance of these vehicles,” she said. “We’re spending $500 million dollars a year on gas for these gas-guzzling vehicles. This is stupid not to support this amendment.”
Newly elected Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) argued against upsetting the gasoline-fueled status quo for mail trucks. “We’ve got a money problem folks,” he said, arguing that Congress shouldn’t spend $8 billion in an attempt to “use the Post Office as a vehicle for the ecological social change that some in this chamber actually want to see happen.”
In other words, Donalds cares more about defeating Biden’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than operating the government efficiently.
Over Republican objections the Lynch amendment to provide the Postal Service with the funding they need for electric vehicles ultimately passed. Republicans didn’t accept the initial vote, pushing instead for a recorded vote. The ultimate vote count was 24 ayes vs 15 nays in a straight party-line vote. It should be noted that Trump sycophant Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) did not seem to be present and did not vote. And despite his protests, Donalds did not even participate in the vote.
The funding was passed with a stipulation that 75% of the vehicles be electric, casting doubt on the ability of Oshkosh Defense to deliver.
Confidence in Mail-In Voting
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the committee head, sponsored a bar code amendment. It would require that mail-in ballots use Postal Service bar codes to ensure voters can track their ballots and give local election officials the ability to track ballots once they’re in the custody of the Postal Service.
Maloney said, “After the November 2020 election, in which a record number of mail-in ballots were cast, it has never been more important to ensure that election officials have the ability to track ballots once they are in the custody of the postal service,” she continued. “This common-sense requirement would enable boards of election to confirm when a ballot was sent and give voters confidence that their votes have been counted.”
This, Maloney said, is one of the “common sense, simple provisions that should have bipartisan support.”
Maloney is right, especially since Republicans from Trump on down have claimed massive fraud in mail-in balloting despite not being able to produce any evidence.
However, Comer, the ranking Republican, argued against tracking of ballots. He said the Maloney amendment was “a bridge, not only too far, but even a step backward… injecting the Postal Service, a federal agency, further into our elections, which are run by the states, fundamentally alters how we have always voted in federal elections in this country.
“Such a momentous change to elections and the powers of the state should not be approached lightly through the guise of postal reforms.”
This is a mixed message. A GOP-led initiative is seeing a rash of state legislatures passing laws to limit mail-in voting because they consider it part of their baseless claims of massive election fraud.
On the one hand, the GOP is passing state laws to suppress mail-in voting as part of a bigger scheme of election fraud. On the other hand, they vote against the legislation that would take further steps to help shore up efficient, honest and transparent mail-in voting.
Many local Republican elections officials have said there is no such problem with mail-in voting. Of course, those Republican officials face uphill battles to try for re-election.
In making these baseless assertions of mail-in voter fraud, Trump and his allies have focused on areas where people of color are concentrated such as Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and Phoenix. The claims of mail-in fraud seem to have more to do with voter suppression than actual issues with the process of mailing in votes.
And Comer’s argument that the states should be in control of their elections rings hollow as many state legislatures where Republicans are in charge, including Florida, Georgia and Texas, are moving to take away local control of elections if they don’t get their desired results.
These states are among the many creating laws that may result in throwing out results if Democrats win in future years, a partial coup by any measure. It seems to be less about keeping control of the elections in the hands of the states and more about keeping the elections in the hands of the Trump sycophants who run those states.
How tracking mailed in ballots would be a “momentous change” to our current elections wasn’t explained, just asserted.
The amendment to track mail-in ballots also passed despite the Republicans objecting to it.
Getting Its Money Back
While Republicans claim fiscal irresponsibility when faced with spending $8 billion to build electric vehicles, they fail to mention that the Postal Reform Act makes two key changes projected to save an estimated $46 billion over the next 10 years.
The two changes:
- Requiring all Postal Service employees to enroll in and utilize Medicare at age 65. Medicare then becomes their primary health coverage and their Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan (FEHB) becomes their secondary health coverage, lowering Postal Service costs by shifting some of the healthcare costs to Medicare. Most private-sector employers — and many state and local governments —require employees and retirees with health coverage to enroll in Medicare.
- Ending the requirement that the Postal Service pre-fund its retiree health benefits for 75 years in advance, an expense borne by no other government agency or business in America.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform says that a burdensome congressional mandate from 2006 that forced the Postal Service to pre-fund retirement and health benefits must be lifted for the Postal Service to achieve financial stability.
A House Divided
While Republicans say spending $8 billion on EVs is fiscally irresponsible, we haven’t found evidence of their applauding the $46 billion in savings the Democrats say will flow from the requirement to enroll in Medicare and lifting the pre-funding mandate.
And then there’s what Speier says would be $2.5 billion saved each year maintaining and fueling gasoline-powered mail trucks. The initial higher outlay for EVs combined with the maintenance and fuel savings is a net savings of about $17 billion over a decade.
While the bill was described as bipartisan before last week’s mark-up, that’s no longer quite true. Postal Service legislation is bipartisan only until it comes to protecting the environment and elections. Then the parties stand divided, the Republicans four square for more spending and more pollution, the Democrats for less pollution and less spending.
One thing’s for sure: This is not your pre-Trump Congress.