Congress moves to keep Saturday mail delivery

I have often written about how difficult it can be to decipher what Congress does in legislation, and that was demonstrated yet again this week in the post-sequester-government budget bill that was approved by the House.

What was in that bill? Maybe the question should also be, what wasn't in the bill, and why that was so important.

My interest was piqued by a headline in the New York Times on Thursday, which caught me completely off guard:

"House Tells Postal Service to Keep Six-Day Delivery."

But wait - I didn't see anything in the bill on the Postal Service decision to get rid of first class letter delivery on Saturdays. And I read through that bill several times this week, just to make sure I wasn't missing something.

The Times story quoted Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, and sure enough, he had a full statement on his Congressional web site:

"The Continuing Resolution is clear; there will be six day delivery for the rest of the fiscal year,” said Serrano.

"Earlier this year the Postal Service announced they thought they had legal authority to end Saturday delivery. That analysis was wrong, but now there is no room for misunderstanding. This bill included advance appropriations for the Postal Service which continued the provision requiring six day delivery. There is no longer any possibility of misinterpretation: according to their own legal analysis these steps require the Postal Service to maintain six day delivery."

In seconds, I was digging deep into my electronic copy of the 269 pages of the House sequester/funding bill, searching for any language about the Postal Service that was referenced by Serrano.


I remembered the provision that had been tucked in previous budget bills:

"Provided further, That 6-day delivery and rural delivery of mail shall continue at not less than the 1983 level."

But that wasn't in the bill either.

I read through the bill a second and a third time, thinking maybe I just was missing it.

Then I finally realized that I was going about things the wrong way.

The provision I listed a few paragraphs above was part of a year-end omnibus budget bill approved by Congress in late 2011 for Fiscal Year 2012; that held the key.

Under Title I of this week's bill that was passed by the House entitled, "General Provisions," it basically says that for the rest of Fiscal Year 2013, all the plans for spending and legislative authorities will continue from that FY 2012 spending measure for a series of federal departments and agencies.

"SEC. 1101.
(a) Such amounts as may be necessary, at the level specified in subsection (c) and under the authority and conditions provided in applicable appropriations Acts for fiscal year 2012, for projects or activities (including the costs of direct loans and loan guarantees) that are not otherwise specifically provided for, and for which appropriations, funds, or other authority were made available in the following appropriations Acts:"

Then the bill approved this week in the House goes on to list the different major sections of that spending plan approved by Congress in December 2011, which is Public Law 112-74.

And in that list was this innocuous language:

"(4) The Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, 2012 (division C of Public Law 112–74)."

If you go to Division C of that law, you will find a section on the payment to the Postal Service Fund, which is basically Uncle Sam writing a check to the Postal Service for services rendered to the federal government.

And in that section is the money quote:

"Provided further, That 6-day delivery and rural delivery of mail shall continue at not less than the 1983 level"

So, without actually listing that familiar language about 6-day delivery in this week's bill, this funding measure still clamped down on the bid of the Postal Service to save some $2 billion a year.

I shook my head and realized my mistake.

For all of the work I did on that bill, I had missed the Saturday mail delivery story, though it wasn't exactly sitting out in the middle of a field with a big ribbon on it.

Bottom line, this bill prevents the Postal Service from getting rid of Saturday mail delivery in August, as USPS announced a few weeks ago, because it renews the statutory language from an earlier budget bill that was approved by Congress in December of 2011, which mandates nothing less than 6-day delivery of mail.

Could it be changed? Sure, it could come up on the Senate floor next week.

But don't hold your breath; there is a lot of opposition in the Senate to the idea of ending Saturday first class letter delivery.

It was another reminder that no matter how careful you are in the halls of Congress, no matter how many times you read through a major bill that is up for a vote - sometimes you can't uncover every nook and cranny in that legislative text unless you know the code.

This is another example of how you can "read the bill," but still not figure out everything that legislation might do.

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