Loss of Saturday delivery still a possibility

Apr 10, 2013

By Tonda F. Rush

WASHINGTON—Will they or won’t they?

Will Saturday delivery of newspapers come to an abrupt end on Aug. 5?

That is what Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has asserted.

But it probably won’t happen, at least not then. The question isn’t as simple as the U.S. Postal Service might wish. That is why National Newspaper Association Postal Committee Chair Max Heath has advised newspapers with Saturday delivery issues to develop a Plan B if they can, but not to implement it unless the new plan is a better one, and we know Saturday delivery won’t be extended.

Understanding the uncertainty requires an appreciation for the twists and turns in how America forms its laws.

First, Congress has a voice—probably the deciding voice—in the question of Saturday delivery. But Congress is evidently not yet ready to use it in support of the postmaster general’s plan. Barely a month had passed after Donahoe’s announcement when both Houses of Congress passed a law requiring six-day mail delivery through Sept. 30, 2013.

Or maybe it didn’t. The question, like many in Washington, is a matter of interpretation.

USPS has aggressively advertised the imminent end of Saturday mail delivery since March 2009. But the drive to move to five-day service is not totally of recent origin. Postal management has sporadically pushed to cut Saturdays since USPS first encountered serious financial disruption in the 1980s as it tried to wean itself from tax support. Coalitions of postal workers and mailers—including NNA—disagreed. Their opposition set up the pattern of appropriations bills that mandate continued Saturday mail, which have been enacted annually since 1983, each requiring service for that fiscal year.

Now the heads of both committees overseeing USPS—the House Oversight and Government Reform and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committees—believe Donahoe should be allowed to shift to five-day mail delivery at some point. So why hasn’t Congress backed the postmaster general?

First, the appropriations process in Congress has long trumped the wishes of committees that believe they are the governors of the agencies they oversee. Interest groups that cannot achieve their goals in oversight committees often go to the “appropriators” for help. The appropriations committees have the power to tie compliance with their wishes to the granting of funds for agency operations, and in so doing override—and often earn the resentment of—the oversight committees. That is what happened when the six-day mail rider on USPS appropriations bills occurred in the 80s and still occurs today. Management wants a five-day schedule. The oversight committees may favor it. But the appropriators so far do not, and a majority of Congress follows their lead.

Now, USPS has asked the oversight committees to seize control, ending the six-day mail question by passing a law once and for all to trump the trump. The chairs of the oversight committees have tried, pointing out the appropriators are not supposed to “legislate” on spending bills, even though they do so all the time. But their demands have not overcome the reluctance of Congress to end Saturday mail, so the appropriators apparently remain in charge.

What could change to take America to five-day mail service?

1. Congress could stop passing the annual appropriation rider.

2. The Postal Service could test the appropriators’ power by declining the small federal appropriation it receives and try to free itself from the restrictions. But it is unclear that a government body has the right to decline money Congress wishes to give.

3. USPS could adopt the opinion of Darrell Issa, chair of the House oversight committee. He believes that so long as USPS is delivering something, somewhere on Saturdays, it is in compliance with the law. USPS has stated it intends to deliver parcels on Saturdays to households and all mail to post office box holders. That, says Issa, is good enough.

4. Or Congress could pass a sweeping postal reform bill that either mandates five-day delivery or gives USPS total control to decide what mail to deliver and when, as it wishes. So far, the Senate committee has leaned in the direction of further delays and studies of five-day delivery.

USPS has hinted it may proceed with its plans, despite the appropriators’ wishes. If that happens, a lawsuit is likely to follow, to attempt to enjoin it from doing so. That would put the court in charge until the oversight committees assume control again and pass a new law. That would settle the question for the foreseeable future, at least until USPS decides it needs to move to four-day delivery, an eventuality many defenders of Saturday delivery predict if services are cut.

Then the process could start all over again.