Postmaster general takes lashing over move to five-day mail

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) said Wednesday that it would stop much of its Saturday mail delivery, a move that drew howls from Democrats and unions that said the move circumvented congressional will.

Under the plan, which would begin in August, the Postal Service would continue to deliver packages on Saturdays but would no longer distribute letters and other pieces of first-class mail.

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Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told reporters the changes would save around $2 billion a year — or around 10 percent of the roughly $20 billion in annual savings the cash-strapped agency says it needs to return to profitability.

Donahoe stressed that the Postal Service needed to make the move, given how the Internet has changed how customers shop and communicate. In recent years, USPS has seen an increase in package shipping at the same time that first-class mail has dropped dramatically.

“We cannot put our head in the sand and say, ‘Well, jeez, let’s hope this problem goes away,’ ” Donahoe said at a news conference. “Hope is not a strategy.”

Liberal Democrats, postal unions and some private-sector groups bashed the Postal Service’s decision as a shortsighted power grab that flouts the will of lawmakers.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Hill that he hoped the USPS decision would spark a legal challenge. The National Association of Letter Carriers and National Rural Letter Carriers Association went so far as to call for Donahoe’s ouster. 

“This is just one more in a series of mild to egregious missteps in his relations with Congress,” Connolly said about the postmaster general. “If he’s trying to show power or strength, I think in fact it reveals the opposite — that he’s floundering.” 

Groups like the American Forest and Paper Association also said the decision would be a loser in the long run. The greeting card company Hallmark, for instance, has lobbied against reducing delivery standards.

And while key congressional Republicans who are active on postal issues were largely supportive of the switch to five-day delivery, even GOP appropriators have questioned the service’s rationale for acting on its own. Some rural Republicans have also said they are skeptical of the move.

Lawmakers have, for roughly three decades, mandated through the appropriations process that USPS deliver mail six days a week. 

Postal officials have been begging lawmakers for years to give them the authority to scrap Saturday delivery. But Donahoe said Wednesday that the agency believed that, with the government being funded through March 27 by a temporary spending measure, it could move forward.

In any case, Donahoe said he hoped to work with lawmakers over the next six weeks to ensure that the next continuing resolution would not contain any language that might keep USPS from scrapping Saturday delivery. 

“We have no interest in trying to catch Congress in a loophole. That’s not our interest,” Donahoe said. “We want to work with Congress to do the right things. We think right now the opportunity exists.”

At the same time, Donahoe is continuing to press lawmakers to enact a broad postal overhaul, after his agency lost a record $15.9 billion in fiscal 2012. Roughly 70 percent of those losses — around $11 billion — stemmed from defaults on required prepayments for retiree healthcare, one of the key areas being discussed by lawmakers.

In making the move to end Saturday mail, postal officials are betting that the public will rally to their side. Donahoe on Wednesday cited polling that said roughly seven out of 10 people in the U.S. back a five-day delivery schedule.

But it remains unclear whether the agency’s actions will move the ball forward on postal reform, even as key lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have pledged to work together this year. 

The Senate passed a bipartisan postal bill last April. But House GOP leaders never brought their preferred measure to the floor in the last Congress, and the recent lame-duck session ended without a bipartisan agreement. 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday that he hoped Congress would act quickly on postal reform.

“The Congress, in its wisdom, has tied their hands every which way in order for them to actually run the post office in a revenue-neutral way,” Boehner said. 

The White House, meanwhile, has supported allowing USPS to move to five-day delivery. But Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that the administration was only given a day’s notice of the agency’s intentions, and preferred that Congress take up postal reforms proposed by President Obama. 

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the ranking member at Senate Homeland Security, both pledged on Wednesday to back the Postal Service’s move in the halls of Congress. 

“Today is a good day for Americans, because this is a responsible action by the Post Office,” Issa told CNBC. “This money-saving smart move is going to be a step in rightsizing the Post Office.”

An Oversight spokesman added that the panel was willing to work with appropriators about any concerns  they would have. 

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who once headed the Oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over USPS, also said the Postal Service’s decision could give “political cover” to some GOP lawmakers. 

The House did not bring its postal bill to the floor last year partly because GOP leaders did not want to force their members to take a tough vote. 

But top Democrats — including Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the Homeland Security chairman, and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member at House Oversight — were more cautious. 

Both lawmakers said they were disappointed that USPS went around Congress, and Carper said that “piecemeal efforts” like Wednesday’s announcement would not be a long-term solution for the agency.

Still, Carper said: “It’s hard to condemn the Postmaster General for moving aggressively to do what he believes he can and must do to keep the lights on at the Postal Service, which may be only months away from insolvency.”