Postal Service may hurt its push for reform by antagonizing Congress

The U.S. Postal Service did itself no favors on Capitol Hill by unveiling its plan to limit Saturday delivery last month, at a time when the agency is still prodding lawmakers for assistance.

Congress has long maintained that it has oversight over how frequently the Postal Service delivers the mail, and Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe’s decision to move unilaterally rubbed some lawmakers – including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) – the wrong way.

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Observers both on and off Capitol Hill say the Postal Service’s approach didn’t win them any new friends at a key time, when the agency continues to push for broader postal legislation.

USPS is looking for relief from billions of dollars in required healthcare payments for future retirees and other provisions. The service says the relief is necessary, in addition to the Saturday delivery changes, for its long-term fiscal health.

“You saw a lot of members upset with them – really feel antagonized,” one observer noted.

“I think that it’s transcended the issue of Saturday delivery, and the issue’s become the defiance of Congress,” the observer added. “That’s not a good thing for postal reform. It clearly hasn’t made things easier.”

Donahoe has said the proposal to deliver letters and other first-class mail five days a week starting in August would save the Postal Service around $2 billion a year when fully implemented. USPS would continue to deliver packages, one part of their business that continues to grow, on Saturday.

The Postal Service lost close to $16 billion in all in fiscal 2012, with roughly $11 billion of that coming from defaults on the healthcare prepayments.

Congress also passed a stopgap spending measure this month that kept language requiring USPS to deliver the mail six days a week at the same levels it did in 1983. The Government Accountability Office, in a recent analysis, found that the continuing resolution did have the authority to mandate six-day delivery.

The Postal Service has said it disagreed with the GAO’s analysis, even though Donahoe had previously said that Congress would need to approve changes to delivery standards.

A spokesman for the agency said this week that top USPS officials and the agency’s board of governors would discuss the agency’s next steps on Saturday delivery. If USPS decides to go ahead with its changes as planned, it could trigger a court challenge, according to observers on and off Capitol Hill.

The spokesman, Dave Partenheimer, continued to call on lawmakers to press ahead on postal reform.

“Congress must act to restore financial stability to the Postal Service and to avoid the potential that the Postal Service may eventually become a significant burden to the American taxpayer,” Partenheimer told The Hill in a statement.

The response to Donahoe’s modified delivery schedule also illustrates the longstanding differences of opinions over how to overhaul postal operations on Capitol Hill, and the tricky political calculus the Postal Service has to face as it pushes for changes.

Top lawmakers on the Senate Homeland Security Committee and House Oversight panel came close to a broad postal deal at the end of last year, after working on the issue for much of the previous Congress.

“It seems to me that this was a signal to Congress about how serious the Postal Service’s problems are,” Rick Geddes, a Cornell professor who studies USPS, said about Donahoe’s proposal. “I think he was trying to send a wake-up call.”

In addition to Reid, other Democrats and lawmakers representing rural districts strongly pushed back against the proposed Saturday delivery changes, and brandished the GAO analysis as proof that the Postal Service could not proceed with its plan.

Some Democrats and postal unions have said that limiting Saturday delivery would be self-defeating for USPS, and are pushing to roll back the prefunding mandate that they say is the major roadblock for the agency.

“I am urging you to make it clear to the American people that the USPS will continue Saturday mail delivery in adherence with the law as soon as possible,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote to Donahoe this week.

But key Republicans like House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), the ranking member on the Homeland Security panel, have given their full-throated backing to USPS’s plan to end Saturday letter delivery.

Issa and Coburn have said that the continuing resolution rider would not tie the Postal Service’s hands, since USPS would just be altering what is delivered on Saturday.

House Republican leaders also believe the Postal Service has the go-ahead to proceed, and GOP lawmakers have suggested that USPS’s plan could shield colleagues who don’t want to vote on delivery standards, perhaps the trickiest political issue in postal reform.

In fact, postal officials could draw the ire of top Republicans if they decide to back away from their modified six-day delivery plan. Issa and Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), for instance, said that USPS “caved to political pressures” in the last Congress when it agreed to a moratorium on closing facilities.

Still, even with those differences and the response to the Postal Service’s proposed delivery changes, lawmakers also say that all sides want to ensure the long-term viability of the Postal Service and that Democrats and Republicans will work toward finding a broad solution.

“Only comprehensive reform of the Postal Service that takes into account its long-term needs can address the severe financial problems that continue to plague this American institution, and that reform can only come from Congress working with the administration,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the Homeland Security panel chairman, said in a statement this week.