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Lawmakers decry Postal Service plan to cut Saturday delivery

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 6, 2013 - WASHINGTON – When the Postal Service announced Wednesday that it planned to end most Saturday mail delivery by August, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., accused House Republicans of “abandoning rural America” by failing to pass a postal bill.

The Republican in charge of the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, blamed “Congress” for the problem, even though the Senate – but not the House – had approved postal legislation last year that would have kept Saturday service.

Although a commission technically runs the Postal Service, Boehner told reporters Wednesday that “the Congress, in its wisdom, has tied their hands every which way in order for them to actually run the post office in a revenue neutral way.”

And U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he wasn’t even sure that the Postal Service had the power to stop Saturday delivery without congressional approval – given that the continuing resolution under which the government is now operating forbids the ending of Saturday delivery. But that resolution expires next month, and the congressional blame game has begun.

“Our financial condition is urgent,” said Postmaster General and CEO Patrick R. Donahoe at a news conference, citing the Postal Service's loss of nearly $16 billion in the last budget year.

He announced the Saturday mail cuts, which would begin the week of Aug. 5 and save an estimated $2 billion a year. While mail delivery to homes would end on Saturdays, packages would continue to be delivered six days a week.

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, who wasn’t in Congress last year, said small towns will be paying the price of Congress’ failure to pass a postal reform package. “At what point will Washington get the message that we can’t afford for workers, seniors, veterans, and small businesses to pay the price of Congress’ failure?” Enyart asked.

“Our small towns and rural communities are the fabric of the southern Illinois way of life, and mail service is a critical lifeline. I am deeply concerned about the impact (of) restricting mail service would have (on) southern Illinois veterans and seniors, who get the benefits they’ve earned by mail, or on small businesses’ success.”

Sounding a similar note was McCaskill, who said last year’s Senate-passed bill “would have put the Postal Service on the path to sound financial footing, protected rural post offices, and provided strict criteria for the Postal Service to meet before eliminating six-day delivery.

“Unfortunately, instead of passing the bill, the Republicans in the U.S. House abandoned rural America and allowed the legislation to die. And this is the result of their inaction — an unnecessary loss for business, rural families and the principle of compromise.”

But Boehner said Wednesday that the House had good reasons for not acting last fall – and he promised action this year. “The Congress needs to act. There’s no question about that, and I hope that we’ll act soon,” Boehner said.

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, U.S Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has been involved in “bipartisan conversations” to try to reach agreement on a postal reform bill. But Boehner said “trying to act in this postal area is pretty difficult.”

In a joint statement, Issa and the ranking GOP member of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said they sent a letter to leaders of the House and Senate, backing the elimination of Saturday mail as “common-sense reform.”

But the Homeland Security committee’s chairman, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said he was “disappointed” in the Postal Service action because "for nearly three decades, it has been the clear intent of Congress that the Postal Service provide most communities with six days of mail delivery.”

Restructuring, cost-cutting

The Postal Service has been restructuring its operations since 2006, cutting its workforce by 193,000 since then, consolidating its mail processing sites, and reducing its costs by about $15 billion a year.

While management experts say such changes are needed, the National Association of Letter Carriers has opposed many changes, issuing a statement Wednesday slamming the Saturday delivery cuts as “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers.”

Among the Missouri GOP House members who want quick action is U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, chairman of the Small Business Committee, who opposes ending Saturday delivery.

While he says the Postal Service needs reform, Graves said in a statement that “reducing core services is not a long-term plan. I worry that reducing services will lead to other reductions like closing rural post offices.” He is backing a “sense of Congress” bill expressing the need to maintain six-day mail delivery.

“There is still a large group of people – particularly in rural areas – whose lifeline to the outside world is the Postal Service,” said Graves. “Whether it’s an important document or even just a card from a loved one.”

In a recent letter, McCaskill asked Donahoe for a more detailed and up-to-date financial analysis of five-day delivery financial projections.

Blunt, who had backed the Senate postal reform package, told reporters he would be “watching carefully” to see the details of the Postal Service plan. “I’m not sure how they could do that without congressional approval,” he said.

But Donahoe told reporters that the Postal Service believes it can end Saturday service because the government is operating under a temporary spending measure, rather than an appropriations bill.

He said some market research indicates that nearly 7 in 10 Americans support the switch to five-day delivery as a way to cut costs. Other surveys have found considerably less support, especially in rural areas.