President Barack Obama is expected to soon nominate a new head of the Social Security Administration, replacing an incumbent appointed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, but the White House is mum on who should take the helm at the agency, which faces voluminous backlogs, potential insolvency and a raft of critics.
Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue's six-year term expires Jan. 19. His successor must be confirmed by the Senate, in a process that Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, expects will take a couple of months from the hearings to a vote.
Cardin declined to speculate on possible candidates.
"I am going to let the president make those choices," Cardin said. He said his objective is to see that the next commissioner "is a person who understands Social Security and who has the talent to administer a very, very large agency in the most cost-effective way."
The agency, which has more than 11,000 employees at its headquarters in Woodlawn, provides benefits to retirees, disabled Americans and the children of deceased workers. Last year, the agency administered an estimated $778 billion in benefits to 56 million people.
Astrue, who remains on the job, had little to say about a potential successor.
"The commissioner has full confidence in President Obama's judgment," said an agency spokesman, Mark Hinkle.
Astrue has served as counsel or associate counsel to Republican presidents, the Department of Health and Human Services, and a former Social Security commissioner.
Astrue's deputy is Carolyn Colvin, who was confirmed by the Senate two years ago. Her term also expires Jan. 19. She is a former secretary of the state Department of Human Resources and served as special assistant to Maryland's secretary of transportation.
Nancy Altman, who helps lead two Social Security advocacy groups, has emerged as a potential contender. She has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO and the Association of Administrative Law Judges, a network of 1,400 judges who decide disability insurance claim disputes.
She is the author of "The Battle for Social Security: From FDR's Vision to Bush's Gamble" and co-director of Social Security Works and co-chairwoman of the Strengthen Social Security coalition.
"Social Security is an incredibly important program," she said in an interview. "It is interwoven in the fabric of American life. It would be a real privilege and an honor to serve the American people.
"My goal would be to restore confidence in the agency and to let the workforce know how appreciative I am and the American people are for the work that is being done."
Robert Myers Ball, the longtime Social Security commissioner who died in 2008, wrote in his book "The Greenspan Commission: What Really Happened" that Altman would make an "excellent commissioner.
"Her intelligence and objectivity were major assets and her expertise served the nation well ever since," Ball wrote of Altman and her work as assistant to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on the National Commission on Social Security Reform.
Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said the organization is backing Altman because of her expertise.
"The nation needs an individual who can serve both as a strong voice for Social Security and as a competent manager," Frye said in a statement. "Nancy Altman is one of the nation's top experts on Social Security and has spent much of her professional career as an advocate for the program's preservation and improvement."
Cardin said the challenges the next commissioner will confront include building administrative support to end backlogs in the disability insurance program and providing a high level of service. Once the senators learn Obama's nominee and the candidate is formally vetted, Cardin said, the upper chamber can proceed with confirming Astrue's replacement.
"This is an opportunity at the Social Security Administration to really take it to the next level, and it's important to make sure it has the resources it needs," Cardin said.