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Can the Post Office end Saturday deliveries without congressional approval?

February 6, 2013 by Scott Bomboy


The United States Postal Service has made good on threats to end Saturday letter delivery, but does Congress need to sign off on the move under its constitutional powers?

Photo by Alexander Marks via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Alexander Marks (Wikimedia Commons).

That was the one question multiple media outlets were asking on Wednesday, after CBS obtained prepared remarks from Patrick R. Donahoe, postmaster general and CEO of the Postal Service. Donahoe announced the move later on Wednesday.

Donahoe says the Postal Service will only deliver packages and Priority Mail on Saturdays, which could have a significant impact on consumers who expect letters, and direct mailers who send catalogs and other materials through the mail. Mail will be delivered to post office boxes and post offices currently open on Saturday will remain open.

Donahoe is also not asking for congressional approval for the move.

But how does such a move conflict with Congress’ traditional role with the Postal Service?

The post office was established by the Constitution in 1787. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress, and gives Congress the power to establish and maintain post offices, along with roads to support the service.

In 1970, the Postal Service was created as an independent organization, sprung off from the traditional Post Office Department. The act passed by Congress, known as Title 39, outlines the basic operational rules for the Postal Service.

Related Story: The Postal Service fiscal cliff: It’s real and may be unavoidable

The Postal Service was established as an independent establishment of the executive branch of government. Its 11-member board of directors is mostly appointed by the president, and its members must be approved by the Senate. A Postal Regulatory Commission reviews and recommends rate and service changes to the board.

As part of the executive branch, the law says the Postal Service must submit a budget, which is where Congress gets involved in an oversight role, and specifically with its retiree health benefits fund.

Over the years, Congress has found itself intertwined with the Postal Service. In 2006, Congress also started requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund its retirees’ health benefit plan, which put much financial stress on the service.

The Postal Service would also need Congress to change current laws to sell additional products.

So by most definitions, the relationship between Congress and the Postal Service is dysfunctional, at best.

But according to a report from the Congressional Research Service in January 2012, there is nothing specifically in Title 39 that requires the Postal Service to deliver the mail on Saturdays.

“Nothing in Title 39 of the U.S. Code (which holds most federal postal law) requires the USPS to deliver mail six days per week. However, since 1984 Congress has included a provision in its annual appropriation to the USPS stating that ‘6-day delivery and rural delivery of mail shall continue at not less than the 1983 level’,” the Congressional Research Service says.

It also points to a 2008 PRC report that says the interpretation of the six-day requirement, as tacked on to an annual appropriations rider, is subject to debate.

“The language in those amendments has dictated ‘[t]hat 6-day delivery and rural delivery of mail shall continue at not less than the 1983 level’ as much as practicable,” the report says.

“To date, the USPS has treated the language to mean that it lacks the authority to move to five-day mail until Congress ceases including the six-day mail provision in annual appropriations,” the report says.

But in practical terms, the Postal Service needs to work with Congress on bigger matters, and Congress can always change the laws that regulate the Postal Service.

Congress also holds a lot of power over the Postal Service because it can delay the repayment of retiree health benefits.

So that is why Donahoe, the postmaster general, had asked Congress in recent years to allow Saturday deliveries to end.

The Congressional Research Service said that four different studies showed the move would save the Postal Service some money. On Wednesday, Donahoe said the move would save $2 billion.

And there could be a solution in Congress before August, when the Postal Service will start ending Saturday deliveries.

Senator Tom Carper of Delaware and Representative Darrell Issa of California are overseeing efforts in the Senate and the House to come up with bipartisan postal legislation, an effort that failed in the 112th Congress.

The move to end Saturday letter and catalog deliveries will face strong opposition from unions and groups representing direct mailers.

In a statement, the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Fredric Rolando, condemned the move.

“Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe’s plan to end Saturday delivery is a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers,” he said. “This maneuver by Mr. Donahoe flouts the will of Congress, as expressed annually over the past 30 years in legislation that mandates six-day delivery, which remains in effect today. In the last Congress, which ended in January, a bi-partisan majority of Representatives co-sponsored legislation backing the continuation of Saturday delivery.”

Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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