WASHINGTON -- Saying that its debt could reach $45 billion by 2017 if Congress does not act, the Postal Service on Wednesday called on lawmakers to give it the flexibility to change its business model to keep itself solvent.
During a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Patrick R. Donahoe, the postmaster general, asked Congress to give the Postal Service permission to run its own health plan for employees and retirees, modify a Congressional mandate that requires the agency to pay $5.5 billion a year into its fund for future employee health benefits, and end Saturday mail delivery. Mr. Donahoe said the changes would allow the agency to save $20 billion by 2016.
Ending Saturday mail delivery would save the Postal Service about $2 billion annually, according to its estimates. The agency lost $15.9 billion in the last fiscal year and $1.3 billion in the first quarter of the current one.
But despite the outcry from some lawmakers after the announcement last week that the Postal Service would seek to end Saturday letter delivery, few senators questioned Mr. Donahoe on Wednesday about the agency's proposal. Most of the questions came from rural lawmakers like Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, who said he was worried about the impact on rural communities of some other Postal Service changes, like the closing of mail-processing plants.
But Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Carl Levin of Michigan, both Democrats, did question whether the agency had the legal authority to make the Saturday change. And both senators said they were not satisfied with the legal justification given by Mr. Donahoe, who said that the agency could end Saturday delivery without Congressional approval.
Several postal union representatives who testified also questioned the legal authority for the Postal Service to end six-day letter delivery, calling it an act of desperation.
"We can ill afford to eliminate Saturday delivery, which remains a critical strength and competitive strong point for the U.S.P.S," said Jeanette Dwyer, the president of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association.
The Postal Service said that since 2006, it had reduced the size of its work force by 193,000 workers, consolidated more than 200 mail-processing centers and reduced hours at 13,000 post offices. But agency officials said cuts and rate increases were not enough.
"To preserve our mission to provide secure, reliable and affordable universal delivery service -- and do so without burdening the American taxpayer -- the Postal Service needs urgent reform to its business model," Mr. Donahoe said in his testimony.
Lawmakers did not say when they would begin work on postal legislation. The Senate passed a bill last year to overhaul the Postal Service, but a House bill never made it out of committee.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.