Another fight looms over Saturday mail delivery

Congressional efforts to revamp the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service have run into a longtime roadblock – Saturday mail delivery.

Top Republicans like House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and the Postal Service’s own executives say rolling back six-day letter delivery is crucial to the agency’s fiscal health – saving an average of $2 billion a year.

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But GOP efforts to limiting Saturday delivery have hit a pair of snags in recent weeks, with Republican lawmakers representing rural districts balking along with Democrats - illustrating that such a plan doesn’t appear to have the votes to make it through the House. Those problems have also raised even more doubts that a postal reform measure could pass this year, after years of fruitless negotiations.

“It’s a very good question,” Issa told The Hill this month when asked if a bill limiting six-day delivery could pass the House.

GOP leaders have already scrapped a plan to use the savings from delivering letters only five days a week to shore up a Highway Trust Fund that needs an infusion of revenue within weeks.

The House Appropriations Committee also restored a provision to a spending bill that requires six-day delivery, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers objected to it being stripped by Republicans. Rep. Tom Latham (Iowa), one of those rural Republicans, joined with a Democrat, Rep. Jose Serrano (N.Y.), to push for the six-day standard.

In fact, those proposals underscored the trouble that Issa and his allies would have in limiting Saturday delivery on its own. In both cases, the opponents of six-day delivery tried to bring the fight to broader pieces of legislation, hoping that supporters of Saturday delivery could be forced into backing the change.

For Issa, getting a deal on Saturday delivery is key to getting a bigger deal on postal reform – an issue that he sees as a potential legacy for a combative four-year tenure as Oversight chairman that is scheduled to end in January.

Issa believes that he and top lawmakers like Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and even the top Democrat on his panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), could strike a deal pretty quickly if they didn’t have to negotiate over six-day delivery. USPS has said that it wants to only deliver packages, a growing part of its business, on Saturday.

“They all understand that what they want to do is reform the post office by attrition and higher efficiency,” Issa said about other lawmakers working on the Postal Service. “Six-day really has been an unusual impediment.”

The Postal Service has bled billions of dollars in red ink in recent years, as the agency dealt with the rise in digital communication and the fallout from the 2008 fiscal crisis.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and other top postal officials have repeatedly called on Congress to pass a postal reform measure, and have said that inaction on Capitol Hill has forced them to take other cost-cutting moves – like the recent announcement that USPS would close more mail processing centers.

Issa and others believe that USPS needs to more aggressively cut costs, including doing more to shed excess workers.

But postal unions and their allies on Capitol Hill believe Congress should instead give the agency the authority to grow into other business areas, in addition to keeping full six-day delivery.

“The unions would like to continue this featherbedding,” Issa said.

The National Association of Letter Carriers, one of the postal unions, cast the six-day language in the Appropriations Committee as “a clear victory for letter carriers and other supporters of a strong Postal Service.”

But even after that win, labor officials say they’ll have to keep a close eye on the lame-duck session after November’s election. Lawmakers came close to a postal deal in the 2012 lame-duck session, and labor officials don’t doubt that Issa will take another crack at five-day delivery this time around.

Some postal lobbyists have said that, given the stare-down over five-day delivery, congressional negotiators would be better served to seek a more modest agreement that didn’t deal with delivery standards.

But as of yet, Issa has shown no interest in such a path. The Oversight chairman points out that President Obama’s budget calls for five-day delivery, and recently pushed legislation that would force USPS to shift millions of houses to more centralized delivery points.

Still, Cummings said he didn’t see any reason to think congressional opposition to limiting Saturday delivery would break any time soon, noting that “it’s a way of life” in many parts of the country.

“You’ve got unions worried about losing jobs,” he added. “I think it would be extremely difficult. Period.”