Postmaster takes case for five-day mail delivery to skeptical senators

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg - Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe took his controversial plan for five-day mail delivery to a congressional hearing Wednesday.

Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe took his controversial plan for five-day mail delivery before a congressional hearing Wednesday, where he told senators that the Postal Service “needs your help.”

Donahoe’s refrain was familiar.

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●The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is losing $25 million a day.

●Last year, the Postal Service lost $15.9 billion.

●It defaulted on $11.1 billion owed to the Treasury.

As he has before, Donahoe pleaded with Congress, this time the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to approve comprehensive postal reform legislation. Now, more than before, it looks as though Congress will do so.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told the Senate panel that after two months of negotiations, “we are close, very close” to agreement on a bipartisan, bicameral bill.

Without some assistance from Congress, said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate committee, “the Postal Service will drift toward insolvency and, eventually, the point at which it must shut its doors. . . . We have never been closer to losing the Postal Service.”

Although in some ways Donahoe’s appearance echoed his many other pleas for congressional action, this hearing drew a standing-room-only crowd on the third floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. That was probably influenced by all the attention generated by his surprise announcement last week that Saturday mail delivery will end in August.

Donahoe’s written testimony outlined several key legislative goals, but five-day mail delivery was not specifically listed among them. After repeatedly urging Congress to end the six-day requirement, Donahoe said postal officials had determined that he could take that action without congressional approval.

Moving to five-day delivery would close just 10 percent of the postal budget gap, Donahoe said, yet the controversy surrounding it stole the focus from other important financial issues.

Among them is a controversial proposal to move postal employees from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which serves all federal workers, to a health insurance program run by the USPS.

Donahoe presented an updated health insurance proposal, but it received little attention compared with his five-day delivery plan.

Last year the Senate approved legislation, co-sponsored by Carper, that would allow five-day delivery two years after its enactment. The delay was designed to allow the Postal Service to study the impact of five-day delivery. Carper was among those who have expressed disappointment with Donahoe’s plan to implement it unilaterally.

“We are taking every reasonable and responsible step in our power to strengthen our finances immediately,” Donahoe told the committee. “We would urge Congress to eliminate any impediments to our new delivery schedule.

“Although discussion about our delivery schedule gets a lot of attention, it is just one important part of a larger strategy to close our budgetary gap,” he added. “It accounts for $2 billion in cost reductions while we are seeking to fill a $20 billion budget gap.”

Under Donahoe’s five-day plan, the Postal Service would continue to deliver packages on Saturdays, and post offices would remain open.

But not everyone is convinced that Donahoe has it in his power to eliminate Saturday mail delivery. For 30 years, Congress has specifically required six-day delivery. Democratic Sens. Mark L.Pryor (Ark.) and Carl Levin (Mich.) closely questioned Donahoe about what gives him the right to circumvent Congress. They weren’t satisfied with his answers.

He referred them to a nine-page Postal Service legal memo that says “current law does not prevent a movement to 5-day delivery.”

The reason: When a temporary budget measure expires on March 27, for the first time since 1983 no law will be in effect that requires six-day delivery. Appropriations legislation provided that requirement every year since then.

But even if Donahoe’s legal reasoning is solid, his attempt to circumvent Congress is not widely appreciated on Capitol Hill.

About the same time Donahoe was asking the committee not to block five-day delivery, other members of Congress were introducing legislation to do just that. “Providing fewer services and less quality will cause more customers to seek other options,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), who introduced the bill in the Senate, as Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) did in the House.

Donahoe did get some support for his five-day decision, including from Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

But several lawmakers have been critical of his end-run around them, including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

“The postmaster general’s actions have damaged his reputation with congressional leaders,” Reid said last week, “and further complicate congressional efforts to pass comprehensive postal reform legislation in the future.”

Asked about that comment after Wednesday’s hearing, Donahoe said:

“I always look forward to working with Senator Reid. He’s a good guy.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

 
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