The Postal Service submits a Request for an Advisory Opinion on POStPlan: How changing the rules changed everything


Today the Postal Service asked the Postal Regulatory Commission for an Advisory Opinion on POStPlan, the initiative to review about 13,000 post offices for discontinuance or reduced hours.  The Request is here

Along with the Request is testimony from Jeffrey C. Day, Manager, Retail Operations, in the Office of Delivery and Post Office Operations at the Postal Service.   Day’s testimony is here.

The Postal Service has also submitted several Library References:  Average Post Office Walk-In RevenueEarned Hours Data – SOV/CVSSummary Spreadsheet; the new PO-101 Handbook; and Market Research Materials.

The PRC docket — N2012-2 — has a lot of material about the plan, but aside from the data in the Library References, much of it has already been made public by the Postal Service and the postmasters’ associations, NAPUS and the League of Postmasters.  Here's a summary of what's in the Request and testimony, plus a long story about how the Postal Service laid the groundwork for POStPlan — starting back in March 2011.


POStPlan Basics

The basic outline of the plan is as follows:

Approximately 17,728 post offices — more than half the country’s 32,000 post offices — will be reviewed under the plan. 

Approximately 4,561 will be upgraded (to EAS Level 18 or above).  About 3,907 of these will be designated as an Administrative Post Office (APO).

The remaining 13,167 post offices will either proceed to a full discontinuance study or have their hours cut.  That decision will be based largely on customer input, so the Postal Service expects that in most cases, the community will prefer to see the hours reduced rather than having the post office close completely.

POStPlan Resources

Library References
STPO articles about the plan:

The plan will convert these 13,000 independent post offices into a subordinate class of post office called a RMPO — a Remotely Managed Post Office.  A cluster of RMPOs will then be placed under the administrative oversight of one of the APOs. 

If a post office is 25 or more driving miles from the nearest post office, it may be designated as a Part Time Post Office (PTPO).  It would be staffed for six hours (not two or four), and it would report to a district office, not an APO.

The hours of operation at the RMPOs will be aligned with how much revenue the post office brings in and its proximity to another office.  Most offices will have the hours reduced to four, but for some it will be two and others, six.  Once the hours are set, they can be adjusted up or down, depending on how the annual financial review of the office goes.

The RMPO will be run not by a full-time postmaster but by part-time workers, managed by a postmaster at an APO in another town.

Implementation of the plan will begin in June.  The Postal Service will begin by upgrading the 4,500 post offices to APOs and level 18s. 

During the summer, the Postal Service will work with the PRC as it conducts the process for its Advisory Opinion.  The Postal Service is obliged not to implement the plan for 90 days, but after that, it can go forward, even if the Advisory Opinion has not been completed.

Therefore, the Postal Service plans in September to begin notifying communities on the POStPlan list, sending out surveys, and scheduling community meetings.  In October, the Postal Service will begin classifying post offices as RMPOs and PTPOs.  It will begin with post offices that have a postmaster vacancy.

It's not clear how long the entire implementation process will take, but postmasters can remain in their current positions for the next two years, so it will take at least that long.  Presumably the annual reviews and realignment of hours with revenues would go on for years and years.


Rural post offices granted a reprieve — kind of

POStPlan has been welcomed as a “reprieve” for rural post offices, but it’s just that.  The death sentence hasn’t been commuted — it's just been postponed.

Yes, there were some 3,600 post offices on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative that were anxiously awaiting the verdict, and another 200 or more had already been issued a Final Determination notice.  Those offices — and many more down the road — might have been closed if the Postal Service hadn’t come up with POStPlan.  It's possible that postal reform legislation would have prevented all those closings.  Now lawmakers are off the hook.

But POStPlan is not going to stop post offices from closing.  Staffing 13,000 post offices with part-time workers earning $12 an hour will prove an impossible task.  The Postal Service will have many opportunities for declaring an “emergency suspension” because there’s no one available to work in the office.

The plan also says that every year, the post office’s revenues will be reviewed, and the hours of the post office will be adjusted accordingly.  Revenues are sure to decline with the office only open part of the day and no full-time postmaster around, so expect the hours to be cut further down the road.  

When the hours have been reduced to two (nearly 2,000 will be cut to two hours from the get-go) and people have adjusted to the alternatives, it will be a short step to closing the post office completely.  The Request for an Advisory Opinion makes it clear that post offices will continue to be discontinued using the new “improved” discontinuance process implemented last year.


There oughta be a law

The 13,000 small towns with post offices on the POStPlan will soon be losing a full-time post office and a full-time postmaster.  But they are losing something else as well — their rights under Title 39 to a full discontinuance procedure.

 “It is important to highlight,” states Mr. Day in his testimony, “that the consideration of a Post Office for realignment of retail window hours, and any resulting change in retail window hours, does not constitute a closing or consolidation pursuant to the USPS Handbook PO-101 process.  Therefore, the requirements for discontinuance, including posting of a proposal, receipt and response to written comments and posting of a final determination, are not applicable to the Postal Service’s procedure for determining realignment of retail window hours" (p. 17).

In other words, the Postal Service can review your post office, downgrade it to a RMPO, cut the hours to two a day or whatever it wants, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  All the safeguards for protecting post offices in Title 39 do not apply.

As for postmasters, thousands of them are now learning that they have to start looking for another job.  Some of those eligible will take the $20,000 incentive and retire early, while others will hope that another position opens up over the next two years.  If no job materializes, postmasters can be separated from the Service.  It looks as though (it’s not quite clear) they may be able to stay in their post office and work the shorter hours for about $18 an hour.  For a post office that’s open four hours a day (as most of the 13,000 will be), the postmaster’s annual salary would be about $20,000 — less than a third of what the postmaster currently earns in salary and benefits.

You’d think there'd be a law against downgrading 13,000 post offices like this, getting rid of their postmasters, and taking away a community's rights under Title 39.  And in fact there is — or at least there used to be.  Last year, the Postal Service changed the laws — that is to say, the legal regulations — that govern how a post office is staffed and classified.  Without those changes, POStPlan would never have been possible.


How things work

While only Congress can pass legislation for the country, federal agencies can make laws of a sort as well — they’re called “administrative laws” or regulations — and they are spelled out in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).  The Postal Service often makes changes to the CFR pertaining to its operations, and last year it made a number of modifications to the section of the CFR that deals with post office closings.  Here’s how the process works.

When Congress passes legislation, the law is contained in U.S. Code (USC). Congress often leaves many of the details to the federal agency that will administer the law, and those details are spelled out in the CFR.  In other words, the CFR interprets the USC so that the legislation can be implemented.

An agency of the executive branch has the power to change the CFR so long as it follows appropriate procedures.  In order to make such changes, the agency must go through a process of “rulemaking,” which involves publishing a Proposal about the changes in the Federal Register, inviting public comment, possibly responding to the comments with revisions in the proposed changes, and publishing a Final Rule that makes the changes official.

While an agency has considerable latitude to change the CFR, it can’t just do whatever it wants and make up any administrative laws it likes.  Modifications of the CFR must be consistent with the corresponding sections of the US Code and interpret the legislation passed by Congress in a reasonable manner.

That, of course, is the rub.  While an agency may view its interpretation of legislation as reasonable, other interested parties may disagree.  Consequently, there are various mechanisms for those disagreements to be expressed, debated, and resolved.  In the case of postal regulations, one can send a comment on the proposed changes to the Postal Service during the comment period, file a formal complaint with the PRC, or even take the matter to court.  Typically, the arguments get into the history of the legislation, the intent of its authors, legal precedents, and so on.

As an agency of the executive branch, the Postal Service is thus empowered to interpret and re-interpret postal legislation by making changes to the CFR.  In order to make POStPlan happen, the Postal Service needed to craft new interpretations of key passages in Title 39 — the Postal Reorganization Act of 1971 — by making a few small but significant changes to 39 CFR 241.3, the section on “Discontinuance of USPS-operated retail facilities.” 


Re-defining “Consolidation”

While the average person sees no distinction between the different kinds of post offices, the differences can be important.  A “post office," strictly speaking, is an independent post office.  That could be the large main post office of a city or a small rural office staffed by one postmaster.  There are 27,000 such post offices in the country.  

Then there are “stations” and “branches," the subsidiary offices in urban and suburban areas that are under the administrative authority of the city's main post office.  A station is basically a post office within the city limits, while a branch is outside the limits.  There are about 4,500 stations and branches.

The term “consolidation” has traditionally been used to refer to converting an independent post office into a station or branch.  It’s called a “consolidation” because the formerly independent post office is merged or joined with another post office.  It still exists as a separate facility, but it's now part of the main post office's realm of authority.

According to Title 39, a consolidation is treated in the same manner as a closing, meaning that to convert an independent post office into a station or branch requires the Postal Service to go through the same procedures it would need to follow if it were closing the post office completely.  

That can be a lengthy process, and 39 USC 404(d) sets out the main requirements:  The Postal Service must give the community sixty days notice prior to any “closing or consolidation,” and it must consider, in deciding whether or not “to close or consolidate” a post office, the effect on community and postal workers.  Moreover, the Postal Service is required to consider whether the “closing or consolidation” is consistent with the policy of the Government that the Postal Service “shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.” 

Finally, a determination to “close or consolidate” a post office can be appealed to the Postal Regulatory Commission, which, while it can't overturn the Postal Service's decision, can remand it back for further consideration.

For various reasons discussed below, the Postal Service changed the definition of “consolidation” so that it no longer applies to converting an independent post office into another type of USPS facility, like a station or branch.  According to the new definition, a consolidation now means only converting a USPS facility into a contract unit, i.e., a postal facility that’s not operated by the Postal Service. 

As a consequence of this change to CFR 241, all the legal requirements of Title 39 that used to come into play when the Postal Service wanted to “consolidate” a post office — turn it into a station or branch or something else — no longer apply.  

That now makes it possible for Postal Service to convert 13,000 small post offices into RMPOs and to put them under the authority of an APO  — without going through a Title 39 discontinuance process for every one of them.  Under the new definition, these conversions are not “consolidations” anymore. 

So, if it decides to turn your post office into a part-time RMPO, the Postal Service is basically saying it doesn’t have to follow any particular legal procedures, and it doesn’t have to consider the effect on community or whether the conversion will continue to “provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services.”  The Postal Service claims that it can just do this by fiat, and your community can no longer appeal the Postal Service’s decision to the PRC because the conversion isn't a "consolidation" anymore and Title 39's provision about appeals doesn't apply.


Staffing the Post Office

The second change that the Postal Service made involved the way a post office is staffed, and to do that, changes needed to be made to 39 CFR 241.1, the section of federal regulations that’s related to 39 USC § 1004(i)(3). 

This section of US Code says defines a postmaster as “an individual who is the manager in charge of the operations of a post office, with or without the assistance of subordinate managers or supervisors.”

Traditionally, that’s been interpreted to mean that an independent post office (in contrast to a station or branch) must be managed by a postmaster.  When a postmaster position becomes vacant, a Postmaster Relief can temporarily serve as an Officer-in-Charge, but it’s supposed to be temporary.  On a permanent basis, only a postmaster can manage a post office.

The Postal Service inserted language into CFR 241 that reinterprets Title 39 so that it’s now possible to have a post office operated by someone other than a postmaster.  The way the Postal Service did this was by saying that the postmaster for a given post office might not actually be on the premises.  So the CFR now reads, “A Post Office may be operated or staffed by a postmaster or by another type of postal employee at the direction of the postmaster, including when the postmaster is not physically present.”

Moreover, just to make sure that the change in staffing did not trigger a Title 39 discontinuance action, the Postal Service added this passage to the CFR as well: “A change in the staffing of a Post Office such that it is staffed only part-time by a postmaster, or not staffed at all by a postmaster, but rather by another type of USPS employee, is not a discontinuance action subject to this section.”


Timeline: From the Proposed Rule to POStPlan

By changing the definition of “consolidation” and the rules about staffing a post office in these ways, the Postal Service empowered itself to downgrade any post office into a part-time RMPO, staff the RMPO with part-time workers, and give the postmaster responsibility to a postmaster in another town. 

When these changes were first proposed in March 2011, the postmasters associations quickly realized the significance of the changes, and they filed a formal complaint with the PRC.  Here’s a timeline of what happened, with links to the documents in the PRC docket on the case.

March 31, 2011: The Postal Service publishes a Proposed Rule describing a number of changes to 39 CFR 241 designed "to improve the administration of the Post Office closing and consolidation process."  The changes include streamlining the discontinuance process, treating stations and branches like a post office when it comes to discontinuance procedures, revising the definition of “consolidation,” and eliminating the requirement that a post office be managed by a postmaster.

May 23, 2011: The postmasters’ associations file a Complaint with the PRC outlining its objections to the proposed changes.

June 13, 2011: The Postal Service files a motion to dismiss the Complaint.

July 5, 2011: The postmasters’ associations respond to the Postal Service’s motion to dismiss the Complaint.

July 13, 2011: The Postal Service publishes its Final Rule to amend 39 CFR 241.  The Rule implements the changes to streamline the discontinuance process and to upgrade the status of stations and branches with respect to discontinuances, but it postpones a decision about the definition of consolidation and the issue of post offices being operated by a postmaster.  (STPO wrote about the Final Rule here.)

July 28, 2011: The postmasters file a Notice with the PRC, stating that the Postal Service was not engaging in any “meaningful consultations with the postmasters organizations,” as required by law. 

August 11, 2011: The PRC dismisses the complaint filed by the postmasters’ associations because it’s based on a rule that has been proposed, but not implemented.  The PRC notes that the proposal may change before the Final Rule is published, and, in any case, no one has been harmed by the rule change yet.  The PRC therefore decides that the issue is not yet “ripe for adjudication,” but the ruling adds, “If, in the future, the Postal Service implements a final rule that implicates Complainants’ interests, they may renew their Complaint.”

October 26, 2011: The Postal Service publishes a second Final Rule in the Federal Register.  This one finalizes the changes to consolidation and the staffing of a post office, which had been postponed in the Final Rule published in July.

Nov. 7, 2012:  The postmasters’ associations file a motion to renew the complaint

Nov. 14, 2012: The Postal Service files its opposition to the motion to renew the complaint.  The Postal Service says the motion “is based on unsubstantiated and outlandish fears and premises.”

Nov. 22, 2012: The postmasters’ associations reply to the Postal Service’s opposition, asking the PRC to issue a stay preventing the Final Rule from being implemented on December 1.  The associations note that whatever the Postal Service does “might, in theory, be undone afterwards," but a quick ruling might save the Postal Service some money and “prevent the Postal Service from losing an enormous amount of good will and customer support.”

Nov. 30, 2011: The PRC issues an order denying the motion for renewal of the complaint and a stay preventing implementation of the Final Rule.  The ruling involves legal technicalities about the Commission’s rules for handling official complaints, not the substance of the arguments about consolidations and staffing.

December 1, 2011: The Postal Service implements the changes on consolidation and staffing, thus empowering itself to change a main post office into a secondary facility and to staff a post office without a postmaster. 

December – January 2012: The Postal Service briefs executives at the League of Postmasters and NAPUS on what is to become POStPlan.  

February 2012: The Postmaster General tells the Board of Governors, “We’ll soon be issuing a framework for a revised retail strategy that we hope will accommodate many of the concerns that we have heard, especially in rural communities where we have a lot of low-activity post offices” (Federal Times, Feb. 8, 2012).

May 2012: The Postal Service announces POStPlan.


The Complaint of the postmasters’ associations

When the postmasters’ associations filed a Complaint with the PRC, they turned to the legislative history of Title 39 to show why the Postal Service’s reinterpretation of the term “consolidation” was not reasonable and therefore illegal. The legislator who proposed the language that was to become section 404(d) — the passage about the discontinuance process — was none other than Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, the man who’s always quoted at the bottom of Save the Post Office. 

Senator Randolph was a great advocate for rural post offices, and he was concerned about how the Postal Service could consolidate post offices in rural areas outside of large cities into branches of the city’s main post office.  That would convert “a community-oriented post office into one administered through the instructions and directives of large city postmasters with little or no community involvement.” [Senate hearings, quoted in May 23 Complaint]

In Randolph’s view, such a consolidation could have serious ramifications, and in order to protect these rural post offices, he wanted the legislation to require the Postal Service to go through the same procedures for a consolidation as it would need to do if it were closing the office completely.

In their complaint to the PRC, the postmasters’ association argued that redefining “consolidation” as the Postal Service was doing effectively read “consolidation” out of section 404 of the Postal Reorganization Act, and it was therefore beyond the authority of the Postal Service to do so.  In other words, the Postal Service was doing more than giving an interpretation of “consolidation” — it was redefining it in a way that violated the spirit and intent of Title 39.

With regard to the staffing issue, the postmasters’ associations argued that 39 USC § 1004(i)(3) made it clear that “a Post Office may not be operated or managed by anyone but a postmaster.”  In addition, the Postmasters' Equity Act, as well as the Senate committee report that accompanied it, underscored the legal requirement that a post office be managed by a postmaster.


The Postal Service's reply

The Postal Service responded to the arguments of the postmasters’ associations with several counter-arguments. 

First, it claimed that the term “consolidation” was ambiguous to begin with, so that t was “well within its authority to adopt a new interpretation.”  

Second, the Postal Service argued that the conversion of an independent post office to a station or branch “has been exceptionally rare over the last 20 years,” so it makes sense to redefine the “consolidation” in a way that has relevance today.  According to the Postal Service, the only significant conversion these days is from a USPS facility to a contract facility, and therefore that’s what “consolidation” should mean.

Third, the Postal Service argued that since it was making another change in the CFR — one that gave stations and branches a full discontinuance process, including the right to appeal — the difference between a post office and a station or branch would be insignificant.  Why, then, should the Postal Service go through a lengthy process to convert a post office into a station or branch?  Either way, if the facility were being considered for closure, the Postal Service would use the same discontinuance process.

The Postal Service also argued that from the customer’s point of view, there was no significant difference between a post office and a station or branch.  Redefining “consolidation” was simply “intended to reduce customer confusion, because the conversion of a Post Office to a classified station or branch has no effect on retail services offered to customers.  Hence, engaging in a formal process of public feedback is unnecessary for these types of conversions.”  (Motion to Dismiss, June 13, 2011,)

The Postal Service thus reasoned that stations and branches were basically the same as a post office — both from the customer’s point of view and with respect to the discontinuance process — so it no longer made sense to call such a conversion a “consolidation.”  That term should be reserved for a more significant transformation — namely, converting a USPS facility into a non-USPS facility.

As for the issue of staffing a post office, in its Opposition to renew the complaint, the Postal Service argued that Title 39 says only that a postmaster manages a post office.  It doesn’t say anything about where the postmaster is located.  “Thus, a postmaster could serve in more than one Post Office, or an employee other than a postmaster could staff a Post Office. This measure allows for flexibility in staffing decisions, and thereby offers opportunities for cost savings in the future.”

In other words, a postmaster in one town could be charged with responsibility for overseeing the postal workers operating a post office in another town.  The Postal Service said that giving itself more staff flexibility like this “could well result in brick-and-mortar retail facilities being sustained, as the Postal Service could adjust staffing and postmaster oversight to achieve better economy of operations.” 


When a post office is, and is not, a post office

It’s ironic that the Postal Service used the argument that from the customer’s perspective, stations and branches are basically the same as a regular post office, so consolidating a post office into a station or branch is no big deal and not even worth the name “consolidation.”  For years now, the Postal Service has been telling the PRC that there’s a big difference, and that only an independent post office is entitled to a full discontinuance process and the right of appeal to the PRC. 

Many communities, however, have appealed the closing of a station or branch to the PRC, and the PRC has chosen to hear those appeals.  The Commission has argued that from the customer’s point of view, there’s virtually no difference between a post office and a station or branch, and it makes no sense not to give such communities the right to appeal.

The Postal Service and PRC have gone back and forth over the issue, and there’s no legal authority that could have resolved it except Congress or the courts, and that hasn’t happened, so the issue has been left in a legal limbo.

It thus came as welcome news last March when one of the changes the Postal Service proposed for the CFR was giving stations and branches a full discontinuance process, including the right to appeal.  It appeared that the Postal Service had finally recognized the logic of the PRC’s position. 

It now turns out, however, that the Postal Service had something else in mind when it made that change to the CFR.  By raising stations and branches to the same level as a post office in terms of the discontinuance process, the Postal Service prepared the way for its argument that changing the status of a facility from an independent post office to a station or branch was no longer a significant conversion.  They would get the same discontinuance process in either case, and that, after all, had been the main difference before.

In other words, the Postal Service elevated 4,000 stations and branches to the status of a post office with respect to a discontinuance, and thereby enabled itself to downgrade 13,000 post offices to part-time offices.

As for the meaning of "consolidation," the Postal Service might have checked the 2011 Handbook PO-101, where the term is clearly defined in section 232.1 as occurring when "(a) a Postal Service-operated retail facility is replaced with a contractor-operated retail facility or (b) an independent Post Office is replaced with a classified station or classified branch that reports to an administrative Post Office."  (The new handbook has the new definition.)


Dreams of schemes and parlor games

In arguing that the conversion — the consolidation — of a post office into a subordinate unit managed by a postmaster in another location was indeed significant, the postmasters associations offered as a hypothetical the following scenario: “The Postal Service could conceivably determine that there is but one official Post Office in the country, and thus make every other retail facility a station and branch of that post office.  Further, the Postal Service could conclude that those stations and branches were to be managed under the supervision of just one postmaster for all the United States, the Postmaster General of the United States.”

In response, the Postal Service said the postmasters’ associations were trying to “to scare the Commission with unsubstantiated caricatures of that final rule’s ‘slippery slope’ consequences.”  The Postal Service dismissed the “speculations” of the postmasters’ associations as a “parlor game” and “political rhetoric,” and it argued that “dreams of Postal Service schemes” were not appropriate for the Commission to rule on. (Opposition of Motion to Renew

The Postal Service then proceeded to make the following comment: “It must be emphasized that the rulemaking was not aimed at mass conversion of Post Offices to stations or branches or at some centralization of postmaster status at Headquarters.”  Dismissing the fears of the postmasters’ associations as a “fantastic claim,” the Postal Service said it “has no intention of engaging in any large-scale expansion of these rare actions [i.e., consolidating a post office into a station or branch] for the nefarious purposes that Complainants intimate.”

As subsequent events have demonstrated, the concerns expressed by the postmasters’ associations were anything but “fantastic.”   The Postal Service is now planning to do almost exactly what the postmasters’ associations said it might.  POStPlan is clearly a “large-scale expansion” of the consolidation process, and converting 13,000 post offices into part-time RMPOs is nothing if not a “mass conversion.”


The associations have left the building

The PRC never addressed the substance of the legal arguments about whether the changes to the CFR were consistent with Title 39 and other statutes.  Its two rulings on the complaints filed by the postmasters’ association hinged on procedural issues.  The original complaint was dismissed as premature, and the second for technical reasons: “There is no ready procedural mechanism,” said the PRC, “to revive a dismissed complaint by motion.”

Having been rebuffed twice by the PRC, the postmasters’ associations apparently felt the complaint route was going nowhere.  They could have filed a new complaint, or they could have taken the issue to court, but it looked like a losing battle. 

Soon after the Final Rule on the changes was published, the Postal Service briefed the postmasters’ associations on what would become POStPlan and gave them a choice: Sit down with us and work out the details, or fight us and be left out completely.  It was obviously a difficult decision for the associations. 

By deciding to work with instead of against the Postal Service, the postmasters’ associations were able to ensure that 13,000 part-time jobs will be called "postmaster" positions, that postmasters would be given a VER offer of $20,000, and that many vacant positions will be posted for postmasters only.  They may have also helped prevent thousands of post offices from closing.  We'll never know what might have happened if they had chosen to fight POStPlan.  

In any case, the decision to work with the Postal Service came with a price.  The associations had to promise the Postal Service that they "will not issue public representations against the plan or oppose the POStPlan at the Postal Regulatory Commission"  (Fact sheet).  That means they will not be able to challenge the plan in the Advisory Opinion process.


Intents and purposes

The Postal Service devoted much of its argument for the rule change to its intentions in making them.  The reason it wanted to redefine “consolidation,” said the Postal Service, was to “eliminate customer confusion” about the difference between a post office and a station or branch.  The Postal Service denied that the changes had anything to do with removing appeals rights, and it pointed out that another of the rule changes had given stations and branches the full right of appeal.  

The Postal Service also said it wanted to make the term “consolidation” more relevant to current practices, which rarely involve turning a post office into a station or branch, but which will increasingly involve closing a government post office and replacing it with a postal counter in a private business.

The postmasters’ associations said that their Complaint was not about the Postal Service’s intent, but what the change to the CFR “allows the Postal Service to do, and whether that would be consistent with Section 404.  Intent is irrelevant.”  (Response to USPS motion)

Now that we’ve seen how the Postal Service has used the CFR changes, the issue of intent seems a lot more significant than it may have appeared a few months ago.

On November 14, 2011, the Postal Service stated it had no intention to use the changes in order to implement “mass conversions.”  A few weeks later, the Postal Service informed the postmasters’ associations about the plan that would become POStPlan. 

A lot happened in December, and it’s entirely possible that POStPlan got cooked up after the CFR changes were made.  On December 13, Congress pressured the Postal Service to declare a moratorium on closings, and on December 23, the PRC issued its Advisory Opinion criticizing the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) — the plan to close 3,700 post offices.  The resistance against post office closings was clearly intensifying.  

Perhaps sometime over the Christmas holiday, there was a meeting in postal headquarters about how to deal with recent developments.  And one of the smartest guys in the room said, “Hey, I have an idea.  Remember those changes to the CFR we made about consolidations and post office staffing?  You know, the ones we made to eliminate customer confusion and give new meaning to an outdated term.  Well, we could use those changes to convert a lot of post offices into part-time post offices staffed by part-time workers.   When we held all those meetings for the RAOI, lots of people said they'd prefer having the hours at their post office cut ratheer than closing the post office completely.  This way, we could keep the RAOI offices open, but we could proceed to review thousands more — maybe even 15,000, just like the PMG says he wants to do.  We could downgrade nearly all of them and save millions in postmaster salaries.  And thanks to the CFR changes, we could do it relatively easily, without having to go through a discontinuance process on each one, which would take forever."

Perhaps there was an epiphany moment just like that.  Maybe in proposing the changes to the CFR back in March, the Postal Service never intended or imagined anything on the scale of POStPlan.  Maybe they just came up with the idea after they made the CFR changes.  Maybe.


Advisory Opinion Number 10, but who's counting?

Now that the CFR changes have been made final, we may never get a ruling from the PRC or the courts about whether the changes to the CFR were consistent with Title 39 and other laws.  Since the Final Rule on the CFR changes has already been published in the Federal Register, the issue may be moot. 

In light of subsequent events, however, the arguments made by the postmasters’ associations appear much more persuasive than they may have seemed just a few months ago.  Back then, the Postal Service’s claim that it had no plans for “mass conversions” seemed credible.  Now that claim is suspect. 

Back then, the Postal Service argued that postmasters had suffered no real harm, so their complaint was premature and not yet “ripe for adjudication.”  The harm is no longer “hypothetical.” 

There’s still a possibility that some of these issues will come up in the Advisory Opinion process that the PRC will conduct about POStPlan.  It will be the tenth since the Advisory Opinion process was established by the Postal Reorgnization Act of 1971 [39 U.S.C. § 3661(b)], and it will be the fifth since 2009.  The one on Network Rationalization is still going on, so the PRC will be doing two at once.  (A list of all the Opinions is at the bottom of this post.)

Even without the postmasters' associations advocating for post offices, there may be participants, like the Public Representative, who will want to ask questions about the CFR changes, about the right of communities to appeal a downgrade, and about how opening two-hours a day provides a "maximum degree of effective and regular postal service."  

Maybe one of the participants will explore why the Postal Service is using the CFR changes in ways that it said it wouldn’t.  Perhaps someone will observe that according to its new policies, the Postal Service could conceivably say it would save a lot of money if it just kept those 13,000 RMPOs open for just a few minutes a day.  It could say that none of the post offices is actually being closed, so there’s no reason to conduct a discontinuance procedure for any of them.

But of course, such a hypothetical scenario would be dismissed by the Postal Service as an outlandish fear, fantastic claim, scare tactic, political rhetoric, and parlor game  — certainly not appropriate for consideration by the PRC.  Besides, the Postal Service has no nefarious purposes in mind. 

(Image credits: CartoonGuild, NH, post office [on the POStPlan list]; postmaster at the window; postal timelineJonesville, TX, post office [appeal won a remand, now on the POStPlan list]; Sen. Randolph; Pimmit, VA, branch post office [closed, appeal dismissed]; Parlor Games; seat yourselfNefarious; Advice)

History of Advisory Opinions

  1. N75-1 [4/22/1976]: Concerning the Retail Analysis Program (RAP) for facilities deployment
  2. N75-2 [9/8/1975]: Concerning operating procedures concerning First-Class and Airmail
  3. N86-1 [2/6/1987]: On changes in COD service
  4. N89-1 [7/25/1990]: Concerning a proposed change in the nature of postal services, First-Class Delivery
  5. N2006-1 [12/19/2006]: Concerning Evolutionary Network Development (END) Service Changes
  6. N2009-1[3/10/2010]: Concerning the Process for Evaluating Closing Stations and Branches
  7. N2010-1 [3/24/2011]: On Elimination of Saturday Delivery
  8. N2011-1 [12/23/2011]: On Retail Access Optimization Initiative
  9. N2012-1: On changes in the Nature of Postal Services (Service Standards) (in progress)
  10. N2012-2: On Changes in the Nature of Postal Services (POStPlan) (in progress)