WASHINGTON - The financially struggling U.S. Postal Service said Wednesday it will stop delivering mail on Saturdays but continue to disburse packages six days a week, an apparent end-run around an unaccommodating Congress.
The service expects the Saturday mail cutback to begin the week of Aug. 5 and to save about $2 billion annually, said Postmaster General and CEO Patrick R. Donahoe.
Under the new plan, mail would be delivered to homes and businesses only from Monday through Friday, but would still be delivered to post office boxes on Saturdays. Post offices now open on Saturdays would remain open on Saturdays.
The move accentuates one of the agency's strong points - package delivery has increased by 14 percent since 2010, officials say, while the delivery of letters and other mail has declined with the increasing use of email and other Internet services.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he was disappointed with the decision.
"In our rural areas, these postal facilities are more than just places to send and receive mail - they are truly the lifelines of their communities and can be the only way a town is able to stay connected. Although the postal service must cut back on spending and get its fiscal house in order, cutting the muscle instead of the fat from its budget will not benefit the agency and will harm our communities in West Virginia and across our country."
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., also condemned the idea.
"The postal service cannot circumvent the will of the Congress, which has been explicit in requiring the continuance of six-day mail delivery service for the last 30 years. Whatever basis the postal service is claiming to discontinue Saturday mail delivery, it runs counter to the spirit and letter of the law, and I intend to press hard to ensure that the postal service abides by the law.
Over the past several years, the postal service has advocated shifting to a five-day delivery schedule for mail and packages - and it repeatedly but unsuccessfully appealed to Congress to approve the move. Though an independent agency, the service gets no tax dollars for its day-to-day operations but is subject to congressional control.
Congress has included a ban on five-day delivery in its appropriations bill. But because the federal government is now operating under a temporary spending measure, rather than an appropriations bill, Donahoe says it's the agency's interpretation that it can make the change itself.
"This is not like a 'gotcha' or anything like that," he said. The agency is essentially asking Congress not to reimpose the ban when the spending measure expires on March 27 and he said he would work with Congress on the issue.
The agency clearly thinks it has a majority of the American public on its side regarding the change. Postal Service market research and other research indicated that nearly 7 in 10 Americans support the switch to five-day delivery as a way for the postal service to reduce costs, the agency said.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Tom Coburn. R-Okla., said in a joint statement that they had sent a letter to leaders of the House and Senate in support of the elimination of Saturday mail. They called it "common-sense reform"
In 2011, postal officials proposed closing thousands of post offices across the country, including hundreds in the state, while also seeking a reduction in force of employees over a two-year period. Those moves were also thwarted by Congress in favor of reduced hours.
In opposition to the move, Manchin said the closures would have been "devastating to thousands of West Virginians."
Had the Rockport office closed, customers would have gone to the Mineral Wells office seven miles away.
The agency, in November, reported an annual loss of a record $15.9 billion for the last budget year and forecast more red ink in 2013, capping a tumultuous year in which it was forced to default on billions in retiree health benefit prepayments to avert bankruptcy. The financial losses for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 were more than triple the $5.1 billion loss in the previous year.
"The postal service needs to look at other ways to balance its books rather than cutting off rural customers and undermining its public service obligations," Rahall said.