GAO: Postal Service must deliver six days

The cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service must follow a provision in a new government spending measure that requires six-day delivery, the Government Accountability Office says.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced in February that the agency, which lost close to $16 billion in fiscal 2012, would stop delivering letters on Saturday in August and asked lawmakers to erase any doubt that USPS could move forward with its plan.

But the continuing resolution passed Thursday, which finances the government through the end of September, mandates six-day delivery at levels at least found in 1983.

GAO, in a finding released Thursday, said that USPS was bound by the spending agreement to deliver six days a week, even though the Postal Service has said it doesn’t believe it has to obey the provision.

“We see no language in the fiscal year 2013 Continuing Resolution to indicate that Congress did not expect it to continue to apply during the Continuing Resolution,” the watchdog said in a letter to Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyRepublicans refuse to back opioids bill sponsored by vulnerable Dem Dem lawmaker calls on Fox News to fire Hannity Overnight Energy: Former Pruitt aide alleges more wasteful spending, retaliation | Senate confirms EPA No. 2 | Zinke backs off big park fee increases MORE (D-Va.), who has opposed the postmaster general’s proposal to limit six-day delivery.

USPS said, in a statement, that GAO disregarded "the actual language of the continuing resolution."

"Establishing a new delivery schedule is an important element of a larger strategy to close a $20 billion budget gap by 2016, and to avoid the potential that the Postal Service may eventually become a significant burden to the American taxpayer," the agency said.

Top postal officials have also cited polling which suggests that strong majorities of people in the U.S. could get behind ending Saturday letter delivery.

But while GAO says that USPS must follow the six-day policy, lawmakers are still arguing over whether the Postal Service would be barred from moving to its new delivery schedule in August. In its analysis, GAO specifically states that it did not look into whether those changes complied with the continuing resolution language.

Under that plan, USPS would continue to deliver packages, an increasingly profitable part of their business, six days a week, and mail would continue to be processed on Saturdays. Donahoe says that move is necessary because of the sharp decline in first-class mail in recent years.

Because of that, the two top GOP lawmakers working on postal issues have argued that USPS should press ahead, given that the agency estimates the changes will save them some $2 billion a year.

“As proposed, the Postal Service is not eliminating a day of service, but is merely altering what products are delivered on what day to maintain a sustainable level of service,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnPension insolvency crisis only grows as Congress sits on its hands Paul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism Republicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks MORE (Okla.), the ranking Republican at Senate Homeland Security, said in a Thursday letter to postal officials.

Coburn had unsuccessfully pushed for a vote this week to strike the six-day delivery language from the continuing resolution.

Republican supporters of the Postal Service have also called the language “vague” and said USPS could give up the $100 million in appropriated funds it gets to modify its delivery schedule. The Postal Service’s operations are not generally funded by taxpayers.

But Connolly said the GAO analysis showed that USPS did not have the authority to change its delivery schedule.

“This impartial and definitive GAO legal opinion makes it crystal clear that USPS cannot operate outside the legislative authority of Congress and unilaterally implement a change in delivery service that many believe will not only disrupt mail service, but also exacerbate USPS revenue losses and contribute to the decline of this constitutionally-mandated service to all Americans,” Connolly said in a statement.

Connolly and other Democrats have also said the USPS has not released data showing that its delivery changes would save $2 billion.

Some Democrats and postal unions, such as the National Association of Letter Carriers, have said that limiting Saturday delivery would eat into one of the service’s competitive advantages. NALC is holding events this weekend to push to continue full six-day delivery.

Those opposing six-day delivery generally say the Postal Service’s biggest issue is a mandate to prepay for future retiree healthcare, a requirement that led to $11 billion in defaults by the USPS in 2012.

Issa and Coburn continue to work with other key postal negotiators, like the chairman at Senate Homeland Security, Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperGOP chairman probes Pruitt’s four email addresses Watchdog requests probe into relationship between top EPA aide and man investigating him Overnight Finance: Wells Fargo could pay B fine | Dems seek info on loans to Kushner | House to vote on IRS reform bills | Fed vice chair heading before Congress MORE (D-Del.), on a broad postal overhaul.

Lawmakers fell short of reaching a deal before the end of last Congress, but still have time to strike an agreement that would almost certainly touch on delivery standards before the USPS’s proposed August switch.

- Updated at 3 p.m., and to clarify that GAO did not specifically examine whether USPS's proposed delivery changes complied with the continuing resolution.