Congress: Postal Service Can’t Deliver Reform

February 14, 2013       Mark Hrywna      

Comprehensive postal reform is nearing the goal line and Congress should be able to punch it into the end zone. The football metaphor was used more than a few times during a U.S. Senate committee hearing on Wednesday, where lawmakers said they came close to enacting postal reform last year and seemed optimistic it could be accomplished in 2013.

“We should be able to get this done,” said Sen. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), adding that comprehensive reform is needed to fundamentally reform the USPS for the next century.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing was titled “Solutions to the Crisis Facing the Postal Service.” A week earlier, the United States Postal Service (USPS) announced plans to eliminate Saturday mail delivery starting August 1. Post offices would still be open on Saturdays and packages would be delivered but not carrier mail.

Cummings called the move to five-day delivery an “unfortunate development” that won’t solve the Postal Service’s long-term problem. The issue is not delivery or prefunding retirement, he argued, but rather failure to act by Congress because the House refuses to consider any postal legislation. The Senate passed comprehensive, bipartisan legislation last April — the 21st Century Postal Service Act (S. 1789).

Market research has consistently shown strong public support for five-day delivery, according to Postmaster General & CEO Patrick Donahoe. While the delivery schedule gets lot of attention, it’s just one part of the solution to address fiscal woes at the USPS.

Gene Dodaro, comptroller general at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), said Congress must do three things: modify the schedule of prepayment of healthcare costs; modernize collective bargaining statutes, and facilitate the ability of the Postal Service to make changes to deal with market conditions and flexibility to adjust business operations.

Senators from Wyoming and Montana argued that postal delivery is “absolutely essential” in rural areas.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) pressed Donahoe on the Postal Service’s legal authority to move to five-day delivery, without Congressional approval. Donahoe responded that the Postal Service has examined everything it does the past couple of years and challenged itself to reduce costs. As to the legality of the USPS unilaterally eliminating Saturday delivery, Donahoe said his attorneys submitted a nine-page legal opinion to the committee, explaining their interpretation of the continuing resolution.

Five-day delivery “gives us liquidity now, we need to go ahead and change these schedules,” Donahoe said. Customers have urged the postal service to “be responsible” and do the right thing by eliminating Saturday delivery but they still want packages delivered on Saturday, he said.

“I’m not satisfied. I’m not sure the committee is or Congress is,” said Pryor, adding that the postmaster testified in 2011 that Congress must act to allow USPS to eliminate Saturday delivery.

The 21st Century Postal Service Act allowed the USPS to study five-day delivery and if necessary, eliminate Saturday delivery within two years. Delaying that shift would be a waste of $4 billion, according to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). He argued that six-day delivery is not guaranteed within the Constitution. Five-day delivery is expected to save the Postal Service $2 billion annually.

Jeanette Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, said the change to five-day delivery “will destroy the Postal Service.” Five-day delivery eliminates service and takes away the Postal Service’s “competitive advantage.” Representatives for other letter carrier unions testified similarly, arguing that eliminating Saturday delivery and cutting costs isn’t the only way to go but raising revenues is just as vital.