WASHINGTON — Huge deficits could force the post office to cut out one day of mail delivery, the postmaster general told Congress on Wednesday, asking lawmakers to lift the requirement that the agency deliver mail six days a week.
The move, which would have to be approved by Congress and postal officials, could mean the elimination of mail on either Saturdays or Tuesdays, the system's slowest days.
Faced with dwindling mail volume and rising costs, the post office was $2.8 billion in the red last year. "If current trends continue, we could experience a net loss of $6 billion or more this fiscal year," Postmaster General John E. Potter told the Senate committee.
"It is possible that the cost of six-day delivery may simply prove to be unaffordable," Potter said. "I reluctantly request that Congress remove the annual appropriation bill rider, first added in 1983, that requires the Postal Service to deliver mail six days each week."
Total mail volume was 202 billion items last year, over 9 billion less than the year before, the largest single volume drop in history.
And, despite annual rate increases, Potter said 2009 could be the first year since 1946 that the actual amount of money collected by the post office declines.
The prospect of a shortened delivery week marks the latest setback for the post office, which was founded in 1775 with Benjamin Franklin serving as its first postmaster general. It is one of the nation's largest employers, with about 700,000 workers.
"The ability to suspend delivery on the lightest delivery days, for example, could save dollars in both our delivery and our processing and distribution networks," Potter said.
The Postal Service raised the issue of cutting back on days of service last fall in a study. At that time the agency said the six-day rule should be eliminated, giving the post office, "the flexibility to meet future needs for delivery frequency.
A study done by George Mason University last year estimated that going from six-day to five-day delivery would save the post office more than $1.9 billion annually, while a Postal Service study estimated the saving at $3.5 billion.
The next postal rate increase is scheduled for May, with the amount to be announced next month. Under current rules that would be limited to the amount of the increase in last year's consumer price index, 3.8 percent. That would round to a 2-cent increase in the current 42-cent first class rate.
The agency could request a larger increase because of the special circumstances, but Potter believes that would be counterproductive by causing mail volume to fall even more.
"A lot of people look for the postman every day," said A. Lee Fritschler, a former chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission and a public policy professor at George Mason University. "The Postal Service will tell you that they are a community service. ... I think a lot of people will wonder what happened to their mail on Tuesday or Saturday if it doesn't come any more."
Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.