Saturday mail delivery survives; Postal Service blames Congress

Saturday mail has been pulled off the chopping block, and the U.S. Postal Service isn’t happy about it.

Putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of Congress, postal officials announced Wednesday that they will not cut regular Saturday delivery as planned. Instead, they’ll go back to the drawing board and work with lawmakers “to implement a financially appropriate and responsible delivery schedule” to save the nation's iconic letter-carrying service from financial ruin, the Postal Service Board of Governors said in a statement.

The end of Saturday service was to be USPS‘ first step in a long process to get back on firm financial footing. The agency reported nearly $16 billion in losses last year, and another $1.3 billion in the first quarter of fiscal 2013, much of it due to mandates that it prefund retirees’ health benefits for decades into the future.

The board contends that language included in the most recent continuing budget resolution, which funds the federal government through Sept. 30, is stopping the agency from cutting back to five-days-a-week delivery.

“The Board will follow the law and has directed the Postal Service to delay implementation of its new delivery schedule,” the governors said in a statement. “The Board believes that Congress has left it with no choice but to delay this implementation at this time.”

But at least one member of Congress suspects that political pressure, not congressional language, is truly to blame.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, is arguing that the USPS was looking for a way out of cutting Saturday delivery and could have went ahead with the revised schedule if it truly wanted to do so.

“This reversal significantly undercuts the credibility of Postal officials who have told Congress that they were prepared [to] defy political pressure and make difficult but necessary cuts,” said Mr. Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “When USPS announced that it would alter Saturday delivery service, it made no mention that this change could only occur if Congress eliminated an old and well-known provision of law.”

The provision in question was first written in the 1980s, and has been rolled into budgets and resolutions ever since. It calls for the USPS to maintain service six days a week.

Mr. Issa argues that the USPS should’ve been more vocal in pushing Congress to change the provision. He also says USPS could axe regular Saturday delivery and still comply with the law since mail facilities, first-class delivery and other operations would continue on the sixth day.

“It’s quite clear that special interest lobbying and intense political pressure played a much greater role” than any other factor, Mr. Issa added.

Others have pointed to last month’s Government Accountability Office review of the situation, which found that the “six-day delivery provision continues to apply to USPS during the continuing resolution.”

While the legal situation is murky to some, organized labor — longtime opponents of the plan to cut Saturday delivery — says the USPS would have been in violation of the law had it gone forward with the proposal.

“It seems to be sinking in with the postmaster general that the law is not on his side in this matter,” said Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers. “Cutting a day of mail delivery would not save the Postal Service money, but would instead drive more business away to look for more reliable alternatives, sending the agency into a spiral toward insolvency from which it would be extremely hard to recover.”

It’s unclear where the USPS will go from here, but it appears that congressional action is needed one way or the other to save the agency from bankruptcy. Lawmakers could either address the six-day provision, or could repeal the requirement that USPS pre-fund its retirees’ benefits packages.

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