The president of the United States declared this morning, building on a theme he’s been developing for a while, that he wants to withhold funds from the United States Postal Service because he hopes to make it impossible for people to vote by mail on a large scale. Both parts of this scheme have reached a crisis point: Basic mail delivery, a service that the entire everyday life of the country depends on, is falling apart; the November election, only 82 days away and mired in logistical chaos about the elementary questions of how and where and when people will vote, is at risk of doing the same.
So the House of Representatives—the one part of the federal government currently controlled by the opposition party—has announced that it plans to bring in the president’s newly installed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, to explain the changes he’s making. The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 17.
Sept. 17 is five full weeks from now. Nearly half the margin of time between now and Election Day will have been lost by then.
But the House can’t do anything about the open sabotage of the Postal Service any sooner than that, because the House is away. It has left for August recess—having failed to find its way past the Senate Republicans’ obstruction of a new pandemic relief bill—and doesn’t plan to return till after Labor Day.
Why is the House not in emergency session? How bad would things have to be—beyond an uncontrolled disease outbreak, unprecedented mass unemployment, an impending nationwide eviction crisis, and an attack on the nation’s capacity to hold elections at all—for the members of Congress to decide that maybe they don’t need a vacation this year?
The House Democrats may disagree with Donald Trump about most principles of policy, ethics, and government. But they are, it turns out, in perfect alignment with the president’s central belief: The best way to deal with an unprecedented series of national emergencies is by hiding from them and pretending everything is basically normal.
If this were a slightly less comprehensively abnormal year, Democrats could at least make the case that they’re torn between their duties in the Capitol and the need to be back home, seeing and speaking to their constituents, as they campaign for reelection. But there is, as mentioned, an uncontrolled outbreak of infectious disease going on! They couldn’t go kiss babies and partake in butter-eating contests even if they wanted to! Campaign events are remote and virtual. There’s nowhere else they need to be.
And even if they could campaign, none of that campaigning will matter in November if the polling places are in pandemic hot spots, if application forms for mail-in ballots have been left behind in bales on loading docks, and if states are too broke to afford DeJoy’s proposed more-than-doubling of the price of ballot postage. Congress’ decision to shut down for August is every bit as ridiculous a feat of magical thinking as Republican governors’ decisions to reopen bars were. Reality is going to keep happening, no matter how much they would prefer it didn’t.
But this is the culmination of the Democrats’ strategy and philosophy for the Trump era. Rather than investigating and impeaching the president for his first two years of crimes and abuses, they stalled, waiting for Robert Mueller to take care of the problem for them. When Mueller dodged the question, they kept on stalling; finally, when Trump got caught trying to extort Ukraine into attacking Joe Biden, they settled for a hasty, narrow, and doomed impeachment. As soon as that was over—with the president’s guilt clearly established and the Senate nakedly admitting it would protect him anyway—the House dropped oversight altogether.
So now it’s vacation time. From the moment this Congress was sworn in, the message from Democratic leadership has been the same: It’s really up to the voters to decide. This was always a dereliction of duty—the voters are supposed to be choosing their next president, not acting as a check on the things the previous president already did—but now it is an embarrassing and futile fantasy. August is not the time to hunker down and wait for the voters to decide. It’s the last remaining time to make sure voters can vote at all.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.