Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe confused both the news media and fuming Congress members today with his explanation of why Saturday mail service can be ended without Congressional approval. But he appears to be on solid ground legally. In fact, the case for the U.S. Postal Service making this move was laid out more than three years ago.
Here is Donahoe's somewhat cryptic statement at today's press conference on the legal question: "Is it legal? Yes it is. It is our opinion that the way that the law is set right now with the continuing resolution that we can make this change. The good news is that the continuing resolution that governs the Postal Service that way expires on the 27th of March, so there is plenty of time in there so if there is some disagreement we can get that resolved. I encourage Congress to take any language out that stops us from moving to this five-day mail schedule."
That was interpreted in some circles as meaning that Donahoe was basing his claim on the federal government not currently operating under an approved budget. But some reporters managed in the question-and-answer session to untangle, at least partially, Donahoe's case.
Bloomberg News, for example, reported that Donahoe "said the service decided it can ignore language, first placed in
appropriations law in 1981, requiring it to deliver mail six days a
week, because it receives its money from Congress differently than other
U.S. agencies do."
Rep. Gerald Connolly, an influential Virginia Democrat, accused Donahoe
of "directly violating Public Law 112-74, the Consolidated Appropriations
Act of 2012, which states that '6-day delivery and rural delivery of
mail shall continue at not less than the 1983 level.'" That quotation, however, takes on a different meaning when read in context.
The law Connolly cites calls for "payment to the Postal Service Fund for revenue forgone
on free and reduced rate mail, pursuant to subsections (c) and
(d) of section 2401 of title 39, United States Code, $78,153,000,
which shall not be available for obligation until October 1, 2012:
Provided, That mail for overseas voting and mail for the blind
shall continue to be free: Provided further, That 6-day delivery
and rural delivery of mail shall continue at not less than the
A small price to pay
What Donahoe was apparently saying today was the same thing the USPS Office of Inspector General pointed out in 2009: The six-day requirement is a condition of the Postal Service receiving a measly $78 million appropriation. If it chooses not to accept the money, it doesn't have to abide by the requirement, as explained by a 2009 article in Dead Tree Edition.
In the words of the OIG report, opting out of the appropriation "would be a small price to pay for cementing the financial independence of the Postal Service and would free it from riders to appropriations acts." (Emphasis added.) Given the Postal Service's estimated savings of $2 billion annually, that would indeed be a small price. (But note that curtailing Saturday delivery is not a question of savings but of additional profit -- that is, cost savings minus lost revenue.)
Congress still has the power to prevent the ending of Saturday delivery (for all but parcels) by passing legislation that specifically requires six-day delivery. But lately Congress hasn't been able to pass much other than the naming of post offices.