President Barack Obama named a veteran federal official from Maryland to lead the Social Security Administration on Friday, more than a year after the previous director left the critical post.
Carolyn W. Colvin, 72, an Arnold native who has served as acting director of the Woodlawn-based agency since last year, would formally take over at a time when budget cuts have forced service reductions and an aging U.S. population has threatened to strain its marquee retirement benefits program.
The Morgan State University graduate has worked on and off at the agency for a decade. She would replace Bush appointee Michael J. Astrue, whose six-year term expired last year. If confirmed, she would serve her own six-year term — well into the next presidential administration.
Sen. Ben Cardin sits on the Senate Finance Committee, which will hold a confirmation hearing for Colvin. The Maryland Democrat said he supports her nomination.
"The Social Security Administration needs a confirmed administrator, and I think she was the logical choice," he said.
The agency has more than 60,000 employees — including about 11,000 in Maryland — and serves 57 million beneficiaries.
The Senate confirmation process is likely to be contentious, particularly if lawmakers use it to reopen the debate about tax or benefit changes for senior citizens, many of whom rely on the program as their main source of income.
Without some adjustment, Social Security's trust fund is set to begin running out of money in 2033.
The committee's chairman, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, said he would move the nomination "as quickly as possible."
Colvin served as Maryland's secretary of human resources from 1989 to 1994 under Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
She joined Social Security in 1994, rose to deputy commissioner for programs and policy in 1996 and then deputy commissioner of operations two years later.
In a statement announcing the nomination, Obama praised Colvin's past service at the agency.
Colvin was also the director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services from 2003 to 2006 and the director of the same department in the District of Columbia from 2001 to 2003.
She worked briefly at the state Department of Transportation under Gov. Martin O'Malley. In a statement, O'Malley said that Colvin had "served the people of Maryland with distinction and I have no doubt that she will do the same at the Social Security Administration."
Colvin, who lives in Odenton, declined to be interviewed. In a statement, a Social Security spokeswoman said Colvin is "honored to be nominated" and "looks forward to a swift confirmation process."
Several groups that represent Social Security beneficiaries voiced support for her nomination.
"We're pleased to see that the president has nominated a new commissioner … at a time when Social Security faces long-term challenges that Congress needs to address sooner rather than later," said Joyce Rogers, a senior vice president at AARP.
The agency has drawn criticism from outside groups as well as lawmakers in both parties for several issues, including the closing of field offices. Social Security has shut down 64 offices since the fiscal year that ended in 2010 to meet budget cuts handed down by Congress.
The average wait time for a field office visitor without an appointment has increased by 40 percent since 2010, according to a report released this week by the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
Others have questioned an internal "vision document" that came to light earlier this year. The document suggested that Social Security officials are considering asking more beneficiaries to conduct their business with the agency on the Internet rather than through face-to-face contacts.
"We want those offices open and want to make it easier for seniors to get the information they need," said David Blank, a spokesman for the Alliance for Retired Americans.
The agency has also wrestled with a soaring increase in disability insurance claims. For a time, officials were making progress winnowing a long-standing backlog, but that momentum has faded. The agency's inspector general reported earlier this year found that it would fall short of its goal to cut the backlog to 525,000 cases.
More than 12 million workers, spouses and children received disability benefits in 2012, up from 7.5 million in 2000.
The backlog in Central Maryland has forced claimants to wait 17 months on average to have cases heard by an administrative law judge, the third-worst delay in the nation. The agency announced this month it would shift some of the backlog from Baltimore to offices in other cities.
Still, Colvin has won praise from groups for managing the agency through difficult cuts from Congress. Under her leadership, the agency reduced hours at its roughly 1,200 field offices but managed to work through last year's budget sequestration cuts without furloughing employees.
The agency is one of the largest headquartered in Maryland.
"I think her performance has been good in some respects," said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the Social Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers in field offices and call centers.
But Skwierczynski said he had "serious concerns" about the agency's decision to cut services in the offices.
There is precedent for delaying a Social Security commissioner nomination. President Ronald Reagan kept Texas native Martha A. McSteen on as acting commissioner from 1983 until she retired in 1986.
Given the challenges facing the agency, many called on Obama to act sooner.
Carolyn Watts Colvin
Position: Acting commissioner of Social Security since February 2013
Former: Joined Social Security in 1994 and again in 2011; served as Maryland's secretary of human resources from 1989 to 1994.
Education: Wiley H. Bates High School, Annapolis; Morgan State University, B.S., 1971, MBA, 1973