By Russell Berman and Bernie Becker - 03/09/13 06:54 PM EST
House Republican leaders believe the Postal Service has a green light to implement its reduction in Saturday service, even though a House-passed spending bill contains a provision requiring six-day delivery.
The interpretation by the House GOP could set up a showdown with Senate Democratic leaders, who have argued that the legislative language prohibits the cash-strapped agency from limiting letter delivery to five days a week.
Postal officials have for years pushed to limit Saturday delivery, but had previously insisted they would need congressional approval to do so.
But last month, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the agency would move forward with its modified six-day plan and urged Congress not to try to tie the agency’s hands via legislative directive.
In crafting the latest stopgap spending measure, House appropriators kept in place a 30-year-old provision that states, “6-day delivery and rural delivery of mail shall continue, at not less than the 1983 level.”
Yet during the floor debate on the continuing resolution, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), author of postal reform legislation in the House, sought and received assurance from House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), that the Obama administration had not requested the removal of the six-day provision.
“USPS has the authority to implement the modified Saturday delivery plan under current law and retains that authority if this provision were to be continued in its current form,” said Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The provision is “vague,” Ahmad said, and the Postal Service is not eliminating a day of day of service but rather “altering what products are delivered on that day.”
“Consumers will still have access to mail services on Saturday,” he said. “Mail will also continue to be processed on Saturday.”
A court could disagree with the committee’s interpretation if the Postal Service’s moves were challenged, but Ahmad pointed out that the post office could simply forgo the roughly $100 million in appropriated federal funds if it chose to ignore the provision.
“Given the $2 billion savings the Postal Service can achieve through the modified Saturday delivery schedule,” Ahmad said, “it would still be a wise business decision for it to do so.”
The GOP leadership is backing Issa’s interpretation. A leadership aide said a colloquy between Issa and Rogers on the House floor was intended “to make clear that the [continuing resolution] does nothing to prevent the USPS from moving forward with the modified Saturday delivery plan announced in February.”
“The Postal Service, at the time of its announcement, said it believed it could move forward with this plan even if Congress took no action,” the aide said. “The House is not standing in the way.”
The Senate, however, could try to stand in the Postal Service’s way.
Senate Democrats are expected to release their version of a continuing resolution early next week, and a spokesman for Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) would not say whether the measure would keep or update the six-day delivery language.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is just one of a string of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who have questioned whether USPS can unilaterally end Saturday letter delivery. Lawmakers who represent rural constituents say six-day delivery is a necessity.
“Given the importance of the post office to communities in Nevada and across our nation, such a drastic policy change cannot be enacted without approval from Congress,” Reid said in a February statement, shortly after Donahoe announced the delivery change.
“Instead, the postmaster general relied on flawed legal guidance to claim that he can circumvent Congress’ authority on the matter.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is also a top appropriator, has been a key backer of six-day delivery language.
With five months until USPS’s modified delivery schedule goes into effect, lawmakers still have time to pass a broad overhaul of postal operations that would likely tackle delivery standards.
Congressional negotiators — including Issa, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat at House Oversight — came close to finishing off a postal deal at the end of last year.
Those negotiations came after the Senate passed a bipartisan postal bill in April 2012, a measure that House Republicans — including Issa and GOP leadership — deemed inadequate.
But Republican leaders refused to bring their own preferred approach to the floor last year over concerns that it would force the rank-and-file to take a tough vote close to the election.
In addition to delivery standards, lawmakers are trying to figure out whether or how much to ease the Postal Service’s current requirement to pay roughly $5.5 billion a year to prepay healthcare costs for future retirees.
USPS defaulted on two of those payments in 2012, accounting for more than two-thirds of their losses for the year. The agency is also asking for Congress to refund an overpayment that the Postal Service made to a federal retirement fund.
Postal negotiators have said they still believe they are approaching a deal, and Carper — now the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee — has expressed hope that they can get a measure to the president’s desk before USPS moves forward with its delivery changes in August.
“It's imperative that we act,” Carper said at a February hearing. “I'll call this the first overtime. I want us to get this baby done.”