WASHINGTON -- The announcement Wednesday by the U.S. Postal Service that it would end Saturday delivery of first-class letters has infuriated postal employee unions and set up a struggle with members of Congress, many of whom believe the agency doesn't have the authority to implement service cuts on its own.
The agency apparently expected as much. In defending the move at a press conference at Postal Service headquarters, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe posed the question to himself that he knew was on many observers' minds.
"Is it legal?" Donahoe asked. "Yes, it is, in our opinion."
The Postal Service occupies a strange, quasi-governmental territory, where it operates much like a business but must nevertheless answer to congressional oversight. The legality of cutting delivery hinges on a continuing resolution issued for years by Congress, tying 6-day delivery to an annual reimbursement from the federal government for services already rendered.
Donahoe argued that the specific language of the continuing resolution does not prohibit the switch. Employee unions, for one, vehemently disagree, and are considering lawsuits that could prevent the agency from proceeding.
The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) union called for Donahoe's resignation on Wednesday. Fred Rolando, the union's president, said the move "flouts the will of Congress, as expressed annually over the past 30 years in legislation that mandates six-day delivery," and the union said it was "exploring all legal and political options to block Donahoe’s gambit."
There are two possible paths for the Postal Service to cut back to five-day delivery: Either its unilateral move announced Wednesday holds up legally, or Congress paves the way for the switch by stripping out the 6-day delivery language when the current continuing resolution expires at the end of March.
Donahoe, who said the move would save $2 billion per year, appeared to hedge between these two possibilities.
"We think we're on good footing with this ... Our interpretation is that the language does not bind us to six-day," he said. But he added that, given the looming expiration of the current resolution, "there's plenty of time -- we can get it resolved by then. [Congress] can take out any language that prevents us from doing this."
In other words, the Postal Service is sending a strong signal to Congress about what it wants -- and it expects lawmakers to comply.
The Senate produced a bill last year that would have maintained Saturday delivery for at least two more years, then allowed the agency to explore ending it if it seemed financially necessary. In a statement Wednesday, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the committee overseeing the Postal Service, said he was "disappointed" by the move, though he qualified that disappointment.
"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," Carper said. "That said, I have long argued that Congress should reduce the number of service mandates it places on the Postal Service."
The announcement appears to have split some lawmakers along party lines in the House. Rep. Darrell Issa, whose Oversight committee presides over the agency, voiced his support for Donahoe's move on Wednesday, saying in a letter to House leadership that the move to five-day delivery was "common sense." He also urged lawmakers to pave the way for the move with its next continuing resolution.
"Democrats on the Hill are furious," said a Democratic lobbyist. "They feel blindsided."
A House oversight committee staffer clarified to HuffPost that, even if the language at issue isn't stripped out of the next resolution, Issa believes the Postal Service has the authority to make the switch unilaterally.
But Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the Oversight committee, rebuked Donahoe for the move in a brief statement Wednesday.
"The issue of service delivery frequency should be addressed in that legislation rather than through arbitrary action by the Postal Service," he said.
Legality aside, Donahoe's announcement raises the question of whether moving to five-day delivery of first-class mail is the wise path for long-term survival. (Package delivery, which has been growing for the agency in recent years, will continue on Saturdays under Donahoe's proposal.)
Unions and a host of businesses that rely on the Postal Service have argued that the breadth of the agency's service is its strongest asset. Cutting back on delivery, they say, would diminish the agency's value and inevitably lead to a "death spiral." It would also disproportionately hurt elderly and rural Americans who rely more on the mail.
The announcement is "yet another death knell for the quality service provided by the U.S. Postal Service," said Jeanette Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association. "To erode this service will undermine the Postal Service’s core mission and is completely unacceptable."
The agency has struggled with mounting losses in recent years, and defaulted on payments to the U.S. Treasury in 2012 for the first time in its history. But, for the most part, the agency's alarming red ink is not due to operational losses, but to financial requirements placed on it by lawmakers. In 2006, Congress passed legislation forcing the agency to pay $5.5 billion per year to fund health care for retirees years in advance.
Of the agency's $15.9 billion in losses last year, $11.1 billion of it stemmed from Congress's pre-funding mandates.
Donahoe said he plans to make his argument for the switch to Congress.
"Everyone knows it's the right thing to do," Donahoe said. "Part of my job is to make a very clear and concise argument in front of Congress that we're doing the right thing."