"We have simply reached the point that we must conserve cash," Thurgood Marshall Jr., chairman of the Postal Service's board of governors, said in explaining the payment defaults. He cautioned that the mail agency may have to delay other payments if necessary.
The Postal Service for months has been urging Congress to pass legislation that would allow it to eliminate Saturday mail delivery and reduce the annual health payment of more than $5 billion. The post office defaulted on that payment last week when the House failed to take action before heading home for a five-week break.
The mail agency says it will miss the second $5.6 billion payment due on Sept. 30, also for future retiree benefits, as cash runs close to zero.
At a news briefing, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe made clear that day-to-day mail delivery will not be disrupted in any way despite the cash crunch. But Donahoe expressed frustration with the repeated delays by Congress, which he said is contributing to a lot of "negative talk on finances" that could undermine confidence in the mail agency and its long-term growth.
"Congress needs to act responsibly and move on this legislation," he said. "This is no way to run any kind of business."
The Senate passed a postal bill in April that would have provided financial relief in part by reducing the annual health payments and providing an $11 billion cash infusion, basically a refund of overpayments the Postal Service made to a federal pension fund. The House, however, remains stalled over a separate bill that would allow for aggressive cuts, including an immediate end to Saturday delivery. Rural lawmakers in particular worry about the impact of closures in their communities.
The Postal Service originally sought to close low-revenue post offices in rural areas to save money, but after public opposition, it is now moving forward with a new plan to keep 13,000 open with shorter operating hours.
The Postal Service, an independent agency of the government, does not receive tax dollars for its day-to-day operations but is subject to congressional control.
Overall, the post office had operating revenue of $15.6 billion from April through June, the third quarter of its 2012 fiscal year. That was down a fraction from the same period last year. But quarterly expenses this year climbed to $20.8 billion, up 10 percent, largely driven by the health prepayments. The Postal Service is the only government agency required to make such payments.