Postal Service’s bold, risky move to five-day mail delivery stirs support, fury


Postmaster General and CEO Patrick R. Donahoe speaks during a news conference at U.S. Postal Service headquarters on Feb. 6 in Washington. The financially struggling U.S. Postal Service says it will stop delivering mail on Saturdays but continue to disburse packages six days a week. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
February 6, 2013

Like other kids growing up in Pittsburgh, Patrick Donahoe enjoyed playing baseball, football and basketball. He doesn’t profess to have been a star athlete, but he did get the job done.

“I never had any glory positions,” he recalled. “I was a workhorse type of person in those games.”

Despite his high-sounding title of postmaster general, Donahoe’s job also isn’t a glory position. The U.S. Postal Service is neck deep in debt, it has defaulted on Treasury payments, and its business is in a free fall.

All this red ink has led Donahoe to sing the blues for a long time. With a regularity that approaches a rote performance, he has begged Congress to give USPS more flexibility in an attempt to stem losses that reached $15.9 billion last fiscal year. There has been a 37 percent drop in first-class mail since 2007, largely because people pay bills online.

“The biggest issue we face is whether we can adapt to these changes in the marketplace,” he said at a news conference Wednesday. “Unfortunately, our business model and the laws that govern us do not provide a lot of flexibility to adapt.”

An end to Saturday mail.

But like a quarterback eyeing a hole in the defensive line, Donahoe and eagle-eyed USPS attorneys have found an opening in the law binding the service to six-day mail delivery. When a temporary funding measure expires March 27, there will be no congressionally imposed six-day requirement — a provision that has been in place since 1983. Donahoe hopes to break through that breach and implement five-day mail delivery starting in August. Saturday delivery of packages and mail to post office boxes would continue, as would Saturday post office hours. Most staffing cuts would come through reduced overtime and attrition, he said.

“Reading the law . . . we think that we are on firm ground,” Donahoe said during an interview. Not everyone on Capitol Hill agrees. “Even if we aren’t,” he added, “I would say to Congress, ‘Hey, let’s take the opportunity in the next couple of weeks to amend the law and just get this behind us and get on our way.’ ”

But Donahoe knows that Congress isn’t likely to move quickly enough to stop his move in the seven weeks before the temporary budget measure expires. Congress could stop him anytime after that, too, but Donahoe apparently is betting that it won’t.

It’s a bold move. Risky, too.

Some in Congress, including members with key committee assignments, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), support Donahoe’s plan. Others, also well placed, including Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), don’t like the move.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said, “The issue of service delivery frequency should be addressed in that legislation rather than through arbitrary action by the Postal Service.”

When Donahoe started as a postal clerk in his home town 38 years ago, it’s unlikely that he could have imagined letter carriers, who once delivered mail twice a day, not going door-to-door on Saturdays.

But now this soft-spoken USPS lifer is risking the ire of some in Congress, as well as the fury of postal unions, for a strategy that is going to make only a dent in the debt.

“This plan saves $2 billion annually, but we have a $20 billion gap to close,” he said.

In 2011, USPS estimated that five-day delivery would save $3.1 billion. Last year, the estimate was revised to $2.7 billion. Today’s $2 billion figure is based on the added costs of continuing to deliver packages on Saturday, which was not part of the original plan.

“Our new approach is based on a great deal of customer input. It reflects strong demand for package delivery on Saturdays,” Donahoe said.

But before his plan saves even a penny, it has cost him on the labor-relations front. At least two postal unions have called for his ouster. Donahoe will need their cooperation on, among other things, his plan to develop a new health insurance system for postal employees.

“Though Congressional inaction has left the Postal Service drowning in red ink, today’s announcement by the Postmaster General is essentially a declaration that the Postal Service does not believe that it is subject to existing law or the Congressional budget process,” National Rural Letter Carriers Association President Jeanette P. Dwyer said in a statement. “To act unilaterally and without reasoned legal justification puts the entire Postal Service at risk and is ample reason for the Postmaster General’s immediate removal.”

National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Roland said that if Donahoe “arrogantly thinks he is above the law or has the right to decide policy matters that should be left to Congress, it is time for him to step down.”

Donahoe isn’t going anywhere, except to Capitol Hill to defend his plan, which he’ll have to do Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is led by Carper.

Although the $2 billion is just 10 percent of what USPS needs, “it’s simply too big of cost savings to ignore,” Donahoe said.

“In fact, I would strongly argue that it would be irresponsible for the Postal Service not to pursue this course.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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