Doorstep mail delivery doomed? Congress ponders Post Office cost cuts

A measure in the House could alter how millions of Americans receive their mail, as Congress debates using its constitutional powers to help cut costs at the United States Postal Service yet again.

Photo by Alexander Marks via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Alexander Marks via Wikimedia Commons

Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican leading the House efforts to cut postal costs, is championing a move to end doorstep delivery of mail as a key part of a bill under consideration this week.

Link: Read The Bill

Under a section called Delivery-Point Modernization, the bill requires everyone to get their mail at a curbside box or from a neighborhood cluster box. That “everyone” includes an estimated 35 million businesses and residences that currently get doorstep delivery.

The Postal Service can make exceptions to the rule “in order to avoid causing significant physical hardship to a postal patron” and it can allow patrons to pay fees if they want to keep doorstep deliveries.

Issa and Congress have considerable clout in deciding Postal Service policy. Lawmakers were able to head off a plan approved earlier this year by the Postal Service to greatly cut back on Saturday delivery services as a cost-cutting measure.

A committee staffer says that the move to curbside and cluster-box delivery could save the service between $4 billion and $6 billion a year. And the Postal Service has reportedly stopped offering doorstep delivery to newly built housing developments.

The Postal Service is one of the few current government institutions spelled out in the Constitution.

It was established by the Constitution in 1787. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress, and gives Congress the power to establish and maintain post offices, along with roads to support the service, as part of a short list of enumerated congressional powers.

Today, the Postal Service is a quasi-governmental agency. The Postal Service was established as an independent establishment of the executive branch of government in 1970.

Its 11-member board of directors is mostly appointed by the President, and its members must be approved by the Senate. A Postal Regulatory Commission reviews and recommends rate and service changes to the board.

As part of the executive branch, the law says the Postal Service must submit a budget. That is where Congress gets involved in an oversight role, which has been contentious in recent years.

So fractious is the Postal Service question within Congress that it wasn’t tackled last fall, despite the Service’s well-publicized financial problems, because of fears of a voter backlash during a presidential election year.

Cutting doorstep service to millions of homes and businesses could trigger another potential backlash.

Issa’s bill also contains provisions that are opposed by unions that represent postal workers.

The American Postal Workers Union made its objections known shortly after Issa released a revised bill.

“This bill would have a devastating effect on the Postal Service and on postal employees, as well as the American people,” said Gary Kloepfer, APWU’s legislative and political director. “We must do everything we can to stop it.”

Among the objections raised by the APWU were provisions in the bill it claimed would “prohibit postal unions and management from negotiating protection against layoffs in future contracts; increase health insurance costs; limit collective bargaining rights; close post offices, stations and branches; consolidate plants, and privatize operations.”

And even if the bill gets to a House floor vote and passes, the Senate is working on its own version, with Delaware’s Tom Carper in a lead role.

“The hard truth is that our nation is likely closer than we have ever been to losing the Postal Service and the industries and millions of jobs that it supports. That’s why it is imperative that Congress and the President come together around a set of meaningful reforms to right-size, modernize, and reform the Postal Service,” Carper said in a statement.

Carper praised Issa but said he’s working on his own bipartisan legislation.

As the Postal Service continues to operate at a loss, the longer that Congress debates reform efforts shortens the deadline until the massive business faces a real cash crisis.

“The choices are that it would cease to exist or it would need a bailout,” said David Williams, the Postal Service’s inspector general, in a newspaper interview earlier this year.

In an interesting twist, one blog poses the theoretical question that the Postal Service, because of its semi-governmental status, might not be able to seek bankruptcy protection.

Weil’s Bankruptcy Blog says that a 2004 Supreme Court decision found that the Postal Service, despite its change of status in 1970, “remains part of the Government” and can’t be sued in anti-trust matters.

“This precedent, while not directly on point, would have to be distinguished to avoid the conclusion that the USPS is a governmental unit under the Bankruptcy Code and therefore not qualified to be a debtor,” the blog said.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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