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Postmaster makes case for cutbacks

Grinje Fernandez delivered mail in San Francisco last week. The postal workers union opposes cutting Saturday delivery.

Jim Wilson/New York Times

Grinje Fernandez delivered mail in San Francisco last week. The postal workers union opposes cutting Saturday delivery.

WASHINGTON — The head of the US Postal Services pleaded with Congress Wednesday not to thwart his plan to cut Saturday mail as a way to save money, but postal unions criticized the plan as illegal and financially questionable.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told a Senate committee hearing that the plan announced last week is one among a number of steps needed because the agency’s financial situation is “dire . . . more urgent than ever.”

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The US Postal Service lost $1.3 billion in the final three months of last year, following a nearly $16 billion loss the previous fiscal year. Under the plan announced last week, package delivery would continue Monday through Saturday but about $2 billion could be saved annually by cutting other mail to just five days a week.

“Please do not force us back into a six-day window,” Donahoe said to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Part of the problem is that letter mailing has plummeted as customers move to the Internet for e-mail, bill-paying, and other uses.

But the bulk of the postal service red ink is due to a law Congress passed in 2006 forcing it to pre-pay future retiree health costs, something no other agency must do.

Among those who spoke Wednesday against the Saturday cutback was Cliff Guffey of the American Postal Workers Union, who urged that the pre-funding be stopped. He said cutting Saturday mail is a change that is “too fast and too far,” and will hurt the agency.

The proposed change is based on what appears to be a legal loophole: that government at the moment is operating on a temporary spending measure as opposed to an appropriations bill, something Donahoe’s lawyers says gives him authority to make the change that has been Congress’s purview for decades.

Senators were not sure about the legal justification and asked to be sent what Donahoe says is a nine-page opinion from his lawyers on it. Lawmakers also want a report from the comptroller general on how much money would be saved or lost by the cutback.

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