Axing Saturday mail won't be easy

Congressional budget-cutters may have a hard time delivering on their proposal to scrap Saturday mail delivery. One of the biggest cuts -- $836 million -- in the federal budget recommended by the House Budget Committee also appears to rank as one of the most unpopular. The measure is getting a cool reception from Senate and House postal overseers, many of their colleagues, powerful political constituencies, and large numbers of voters -- who will be able to register their objections at the polls in congressional elections later this year.

The last time the idea of dropping Saturday mail delivery arose in Congress, in 1977, it was resoundingly rejected by the House on a vote of 377 to 9. Capitol Hill observers question whether even the new wave of interest in budget balancing could reverse so lopsided an outcome.

Opposition already is reported pouring into congressional offices from constituents back home.

Ironically, among those likely to be hit hardest by the loss of one day of mail delivery are two groups that often have called loudest for a balanced federal budget: the business community (especially small-business men) and the press (particularly small-town daily newspapers relying on rural mail delivery).

he House Budget Committee, in proposing to end federal subsidies for Saturday mail delivery and reduce subsidies for bulk mail -- the seventh-largest among 30 major cuts totaling $17.4 billion in President Carter's budget for fiscal year 1981 -- terms the action necessary to control inflation.

But the chairman of the House postal operations subcommittee, Rep. Charles H. Wilson (D) of California, calls the cutback "unjustified" and "a serious public policy mistake," and declares "every intention of fighting it to the very end."

He claims the loss would be greater than just one day's mail -- impairing the overall movement of mail and weakening the postal service by driving away business to competing systems.

Leaders of the Senate postal subcommittee, chairman John H. Glenn Jr. (D) of Ohio and ranking minority member Jacob K. Javits (R) of New York, have refrained from joining the attack on the proposal, but both have staunchly supported six-day mail delivery in the past. And both are running for re-election this fall.

Their panel will hold hearings April 14-17 at which the debate is likely to begin.

Dropping Saturday mail delivery could cost in excess of 18,000 postal jobs -- the estimate issued when the idea was floated in 1977. The affected union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, already has begun generating letters to Congress from its more than 240,000 active and retired members.

Even more drastic postal cutbacks have been threatened in recent years. In 1976 the deficit-ridden Postal Service considered resorting to delivering mail only three days a week and ending door-to-door delivery. But such proposals rarely have come even close to being implemented.

The semi-independent Postal Service has the power to drop Saturday delivery on its own, but is believed unlikely to take so unpopular a step -- something it has cautiously shunned since it was reorganized 10 years ago -- without congressional backing.

One way for lawmakers to cut the postal budget but salvage Saturday mail delivery may be to accept the President's more modest cuts. Postmaster General William Bolger told the House subcommittee last week that the Postal Service could absorb Mr. Carter's proposed cut of $250 million without abandoning Saturday delivery or closing small post offices.

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