In announcing plans to end Saturday mail delivery, Postmaster General Pat Donahoe himself posed the key question yesterday: “Is this legal?”
Donahoe’s answer, naturally, was yes, hinging on a rather complicated analysis of the impact of congressional spending legislation (more about that in a moment).
Official U.S. Postal Service talking points obtained by Federal Times offer a more straightforward explanation: USPS leaders are under orders from the agency’s board to accelerate cost-cutting measures; they believe they have the authority to go to five-day mail delivery on their own; and they are hoping that Congress won’t take any action to stop them.
“The biggest driver of this change is our obligation, consistent with the requirements of Title 39 of the United States Code, to take the responsible steps necessary to ensure our financial stability so that we can provide efficient, reliable and affordable mail delivery service to the American people,” according to the talking points, marked “For Internal Use Only.”
“Given our worsening financial situation, the strong public support for this change, and the plan to maintain six-day package delivery, it is anticipated that most members of Congress understand the urgent need to implement this change.”
At the moment, that hope appears to be debatable.
Reaction to yesterday’s announcement has broken mostly along party lines, with Republican lawmakers supportive and Democrats opposed.
In a news release today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Donahoe of using “flawed legal guidance” to circumvent Congress’s authority and warned that the postmaster general has damaged his reputation with congressional leaders and complicated prospects for comprehensive postal legislation. More encouraging, from the Postal Service’s perspective, was the reaction from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who called on Congress to “get serious about comprehensive reform” to put the mail carrier on a long-term path to financial stability. (House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have thus far not weighed in.)
For Capitol Hill critics, the flash point is their belief that the Postal Service is doing an end run around a long-standing legislative ban on reducing six-day mail delivery.
For almost 30 years, that prohibition has been folded into annual appropriations bills. But yesterday, Donahoe suggested that the continuing resolution now in effect offers an opening. Although the Postal Service gets no taxpayer dollars for operating expenses, it does receive a relatively small amount of money for providing free mail to the blind and for overseas voting purposes. Because that money is reimbursement for services already provided—not to fund operations going forward–the prohibition against mail delivery is non-binding, Donahoe indicated.
Left unanswered is why—if this interpretation holds good for any appropriations bill—the Postal Service hadn’t already moved to end Saturday delivery rather than waiting for Congress to drop the prohibition. The unstated answer, perhaps, is that the Postal Service has now been waiting for years, and lawmakers still haven’t acted. In addition, there’s an argument that by continuing to drop off packages on Saturday, the Postal Service really isn’t defying Congress, but simply changing the classes of mail that are delivered.
USPS officials have declined to release the legal analysis that undergirds Donahoe’s position. In a In an email, USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer also would not comment on the talking points, which he called “documents meant for internal audiences.”
“To be clear, we believe we have authority under current law to make this change,” Partenheimer added. “Also, if there is any question, the continuing resolution expires March 27. We will urge Congress not to take any action to prevent this delivery schedule change.”
But in a letter, Reps. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., and Sam Graves, R-Mo., have asked Donahoe to “immediately” supply the legal justification for the Saturday cutback, as well as all documents related to the decision.
And although USPS executives don’t think they’re under any legal obligation to do so, they’re going to ask the Postal Regulatory Commission to update its 2011 advisory opinion on an earlier, more expansive plan to eliminate virtually all Saturday delivery.
In that opinion, the commission found that the Postal Service had significantly overstated the projected $3.1 billion annual savings from that proposal. Because the Postal Service has only provided a “broad outline” of its newly revamped schedule change, a commission spokeswoman said in a news release this week, the five-member oversight panel “is currently unable to evaluate how the new plan differs from the previous proposal.”
[This post has been expanded and updated.]