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Congressional Hearing Focuses On Need For Senate-Confirmed SSA Commissioner

2018 March 7
by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration has another milestone to set it apart from other federal agencies: the longest vacancy for a department head since it was made an independent agency in 1994. This lack of leadership, in the form of an SSA Commissioner, was the focus of the March 7 hearing of the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee.

“Social Security needs a nominee now,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson, R-Texas, during the hearing, “Lacking a Leader: Challenges Facing the SSA After Over 5 Years of Acting Commissioners.”

Four witnesses provided testimony and answered lawmakers’ questions including: Elizabeth Curda, U.S. Government Accountability Office; Valerie Brannon, Congressional Research Service; Max Richtman, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare; and Max Stier, Partnership for Public Service.

Lawmakers cited a number of struggles currently facing the SSA that would benefit from having a strategic-thinking Commissioner in place, including the need to modernize information technology, the ongoing disability backlog affecting more than 1 million disability applicants waiting an average 605 days for hearings, and customer service issues such as long office and telephone wait times.

The main issue with SSA’s IT, according to the GAO’s Curda is the size and cost of the legacy systems operating within the federal agency. She cited 66 different systems, and a current cost of $1.8 billion annually for maintenance, with $.7 billion spent annually on new development. Also referenced was the massive cost overrun on the much delayed state-based disability claims system that is supposed to consolidate 56 separate technology platforms.  

GAO’s testimony also flagged the ongoing problem with disability determinations, including the hearing backlog and detecting overpayments to beneficiaries. “Complex eligibility rules and multiple handoffs and potential layers of review make SSA’s disability programs complicated and costly to administer,” according to Curda’s testimony. While disability benefits account for 23% of outlays, these programs represent 66% of administrative costs.

In his testimony, Stier cited the number of “acting” positions within the SSA signals a lack of leadership to “take on the tough issues or think about long-term solutions.” He stated this status “cascades” through the SSA, including Acting Deputy Commissioners for Operations, CIO, Information Security Officer, as well as 3 of 10 Regional Commissioners who are “acting.”

Richtman stated that even with leadership, the SSA is not going to be able to address its problems without adequate funding, and outlined his organization’s recommendation that for 2018 the SSA receive an additional $560 million over its appropriation of $12.482 billion in fiscal year 2017.

The current six-year term for a Senate-confirmed Commissioner would expire in January 2019, leaving any new appointee less than one year in office. Johnson asked CRS’s Brannon if Trump could appoint someone now for the next term as well, and she stated that the nominee would be required to finish the current term, and a new nominating process would be required for the term running January 2019 through 2025.

 

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