Can the Post Office legally end Saturday delivery unilaterally?

February 11, 2013

End of Saturday Mail DeliveryLast week, the United States Postal Service announced that, beginning in August 2013, it would be discontinuing Saturday delivery for first-class mail (direct mail and magazines).

The move drew quick responses from elected officials, with some lauding the move as “common sense reform” and others claiming that the move will lead to “a death spiral that will harm rural America while doing very little to improve the financial condition of the Postal Service.”

However, other elected officials, (among them, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Representative José Serrano (D-NY)), had the same reaction as I: Why does USPS think that it can legally do this?

Let’s start with an easier question: Why not?

Although USPS is no longer a cabinet-level department within the U.S. Federal Government (thanks to 1970’s Postal Reorganization Act), it still relies heavily on the federal government for funding, and Congress has always attached conditions to the receipt of said funding.

In appropriations bills for the past 30 years, Congress has granted federal funds to USPS (most recently in 2012’s consolidated appropriations bill), on the condition that, among other things, “6-day delivery and rural delivery of mail shall continue at not less than the 1983 level.”

USPS continues to receive payments from Congress and thus continues to be subject to the conditions imposed by the appropriations bill.

And that’s the answer to “why not?”: because USPS can’t end Saturday delivery without congressional say-so.

Since Congress didn’t give any approval to end Saturday delivery, we’re back to the first question: Why does the Post Office believe it is legally capable of doing this?

USPS seemingly believes that the Continuing Appropriations Resolution of 2013, passed on September 28, 2012, lifts the obligation to maintain Saturday delivery, but that’s a sketchy argument at best.

The Resolution didn’t say anything one way or another about USPS funding, and the Resolution didn’t supplant the 2012 appropriations act, it amended it.  Again, since USPS is still receiving congressional funding, the condition to maintain 6-day delivery endures.

Frankly, I doubt that Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe actually believes that he was legally authorized to end Saturday delivery.

True, the 2012 appropriations act expires in March, and perhaps Donahoe was banking on the possibility that Congress would simply not require the Post Office to maintain Saturday delivery after last week’s announcement was made.

However, it’s highly unlikely that Congress will suddenly decide against imposing a condition to the receipt of federal funds that has been in use in every such appropriations act since 1980, and with seemingly greater opposition to than support of the change in Congress, continued imposition of this condition seems all the more likely.

It’s also true that USPS could still simply refuse to accept federal funds, since the projected $2 billion per year in savings generated from stopping Saturday service will more than offset any loss of federal funding, but that’s another unlikely scenario, since that $2 billion in savings assumes that the Post Office won’t see a drop in mail volume resulting from the change.

Instead, a third explanation – one also related to the timing of the announcement – is the most likely. 

Congress would have to take some kind of action for continued USPS funding before the March expiration, and it would likely have simply continued the same levels of funding with attached conditions that it had in the past.  Given the dismal state of the Post Office’s finances, however, this wouldn’t have been enough.

In fact, just about everyone in Congress agrees that something more needs to be done to fix the Post Office; unfortunately, there is anything but agreement on what form that action should take.

Given the public outcry that has followed the announcement, Congress may feel greater pressure than ever before to do something to help get USPS back on the road to solvency – and this may have been Donahoe’s intention all along.

I could be mistaken, and Donahoe could actually believe that he was legally empowered to unilaterally end Saturday delivery and that such would actually help with USPS’s finances.  After all, people often make strange decisions in Washington.

It seems more likely, though, that Donahoe wanted to jolt Congress from its persistent unwillingness to address the issue.

The question is, will it work?