Senator Harry Reid listens to a question during a news conference after the weekly Democratic Policy Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

If Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe didn’t understand the risky nature of his decision to implement five-day mail delivery without congressional approval, Sen. Harry M. Reid made it plain:

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

With all of the help the U.S. Postal Service requires to close a $20 billion gap, Donahoe doesn’t need to anger Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader.

Donahoe’s surprise move, announced Wednesday, to shore up Postal Service finances by cutting Saturday mail delivery was bold, aggressive, perhaps even audacious. Those can be admirable characteristics in an executive when his actions work.

If they don’t work, those same actions look foolish, panicky and self-defeating.

Time will tell whether Donahoe gets away with his end run around Congress, but it is already apparent that he has alienated some forces whose help he desperately can use. A move to five-day mail delivery would save $2 billion annually, but Donahoe needs congressional support for reform legislation that would help dig the Postal Service out of a much deeper hole.

Donahoe also needs union cooperation for his proposal to move USPS employees to a health insurance program run by the Postal Service. But his unilateral five-day move has so upset labor leaders that two unions have called for his dismissal.

He wants to impose five-day mail delivery beginning in August. Package delivery would continue on Saturdays and post offices would be open. Once a temporary budget funding measure expires March 27, there will be no congressional restriction against five-day delivery.

In fact, postal officials say there is nothing in the temporary measure that prohibits five-day delivery. “We think we could move to five-day now,” said Mary Anne Gibbons, the USPS general counsel.

But the restriction has been repeatedly imposed by Congress since 1983, so there is no doubt about what the will of lawmakers has been.

“The fact is that for 30 years we’ve had this,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “ I think the intent is clear.”

Donahoe may be counting on polls showing popular support for five-day delivery and indications from Congress and the White House that they are ready to abandon three decades of past practice. With everything on their legislative agenda, lawmakers might not take time to reimpose the six-day mandate before Donahoe can make it a done deal.

But even if they don’t, and even if his action is within the letter of the law, members of Congress don’t like outsiders messing with their prerogatives. While five-day delivery certainly is a legislative possibility, preemptive agency moves to undermine years of legislative history are not appreciated on Capitol Hill.

“Given the importance of the post office to communities in Nevada and across our nation, such a drastic policy change cannot be enacted without approval from Congress,” Reid said. “Instead, the postmaster general relied on flawed legal guidance to claim that he can circumvent Congress’ s authority on the matter.”

Not everyone was critical.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter Wednesday to congressional leaders calling Donahoe’s plan a “common-sense reform.” Legislation proposed by Issa would allow the USPS to implement five-day delivery six months after the law was enacted.

Reid was among a majority of senators who voted in April in favor of reform legislation that would allow the Postal Service to implement five-day delivery two years after enactment. Under the legislation, which was not voted on by the House, the USPS would use the time to determine whether any communities would be hurt by the limited service.

Two co-sponsors of the bill — Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — also were critical of Donahoe’s action.

He also didn’t get any comfort from President Obama, who supports five-day delivery. The administration’s budget proposal for fiscal 2013 proposed to “reduce USPS operating costs by giving USPS authority, which it has said it would use, to reduce mail delivery frequency from six days to five days, starting in January 2013.”

After Donahoe announced his five-day plan, White House press secretary Jay Carney said administration officials “can’t really evaluate it yet since we just found out about it.”

Carney also said the White House would prefer “that comprehensive package of reforms be implemented for the sake of a stronger future Postal Service.” Yet, according to Reid, Donahoe’s action “complicates” those reform efforts.

Donahoe may have gotten tired of waiting for Congress to act. He has begged and begged for relief, while Congress has argued with itself and slow-danced to the funeral music that seems to surround the Postal Service.

“What kind of reaction do we expect from this announcement?” Donahoe asked during a news conference. “People will say this is a responsible decision.”

If that’s all Donahoe expected, he clearly underestimated the congressional instinct to protect its turf.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at