Debate rages over USPS delivery changes

Thursday - 3/21/2013, 7:14pm EDT

It seems like a simple question: Does the U.S. Postal Service have the legal authority to end Saturday delivery of first-class mail?

The cash-strapped agency announced last month it plans to do just that beginning in August. However, USPS would still deliver packages on Saturdays, and post offices normally open on Saturday would remain open. USPS said those changes will save $2 billion annually and help begin shoring up the agency's dire financial situation.

But postal unions and some lawmakers criticized the decision, saying it amounted to an end run around Congress.

The Government Accountability Office weighed in on the matter Thursday — but, in the end, seemed to offer more questions than answers.

GAO: CR continues six-day delivery

Over the years, Congress has habitually inserted in annual appropriations bills a measure requiring the Postal Service to continue six-day delivery at the level of service offered in 1983.

The government is currently operating under a stopgap continuing resolution that makes no mention of postal delivery and does not appropriate any funds to USPS. Thus, the prohibition on five-day delivery should not apply, USPS officials initially argued.

But the Government Accountability Office, in a new report issued March 21, found the six-day delivery provision continues to apply to USPS even during the continuing resolution.

"Absent specific legislative language, a continuing resolution maintains the status quo regarding government funding and operations," GAO said in its opinion.

The GAO report came the same day Congress approved a massive 2013 appropriations bill that is also technically silent on postal delivery but is understood to maintain the six-day delivery provision.

Meanwhile, GAO's legal opinion has done little to dampen the debate about the legality of the USPS decision.

For one, it's a narrow decision, evaluating only whether during the continuing resolution USPS is still bound by the policy rider maintaining six-day delivery. The decision does not judge whether the Postal Service's planned changes to its delivery schedule conflict with that policy rider.

Lawmakers: USPS plan doesn't end Saturday delivery

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), two congressional supporters of the USPS plan, seized on that point.

"Preservation of this appropriations rider does not prevent the planned implementation of a modified 6-day mail delivery schedule," Issa and Coburn wrote in a letter to the USPS Board of Governors, urging it to move forward with the delivery changes. "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."

For its part, USPS said it disagrees with GAO's legal opinion and that it misses the point.

"Its opinion concludes that the Postal Service could not move to 5-day mail delivery while the continuing resolution, expiring March 27, is in effect," a USPS spokesman told Federal News Radio in an email. "The opinion does not address the Postal Service's proposal to move to 5-day mail delivery, with 6-day package delivery, during the week of August 5. "

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a critic of the delivery changes, requested the opinion from GAO. In a statement, he said the decision "makes it crystal clear that USPS cannot operate outside the legislative authority of Congress and unilaterally implement a change in delivery service."

One thing nearly all sides can agree on is the need for comprehensive postal reform legislation.

Efforts in both the House and Senate last year fizzled last year, while the agency's financial portrait has continued to worsen. Postmaster General Pat Donahoe has said Congress needs to give more flexibility to better adapt to a changing market. But lawmakers have been reluctant to sign off on politically unpopular decisions, such as shuttering post offices or cutting service.

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