Criticism of President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Social Security Administration appeared to evaporate Thursday at a confirmation hearing that featured few questions about controversial service cuts and recent allegations of mismanagement.
Carolyn W. Colvin's hearing before the Senate Finance Committee — which took place hours ahead of a scheduled monthlong recess — drew only two Republicans and lasted less than an hour, an indication the Maryland native might face an easier path to the job than initially expected.
The Woodlawn-based agency, which serves 59 million beneficiaries — roughly one in five Americans — has come under fire this year for closing field offices, a perennial backlog in disability claims and the management of a computer program that, despite its $300 million price tag, doesn't work.
Colvin, 72, arrived on Capitol Hill days after the trustees of Social Security and Medicare reported that the agency's disability insurance program will begin falling short of its obligations in 2016 unless Congress intervenes. About 11 million people receive payments from the program.
Most of those issues have been the focus of separate and occasionally combative hearings in recent weeks, but there was little discussion of them Thursday. Only six of the committee's 24 members appeared at the hearing and only one Republican — Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah — asked Colvin a question.
"The scope of what we do is truly enormous," said Colvin, a resident of Odenton who has served as the agency's acting commissioner since early 2013. "We serve with the same spirit of compassionate public service that President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt envisioned."
Colvin, a Morgan State University graduate, joined Social Security as a clerk in 1963 and has worked at the agency on and off ever since. She became deputy commissioner for programs and policy in 1996 and deputy commissioner of operations two years later.
She also worked in Maryland state government under Gov. William Donald Schaefer and, later, Gov. Martin O'Malley.
If confirmed by the full Senate, she would succeed Michael J. Astrue, a President George W. Bush appointee whose term expired last year. Her six-year term would continue well into the next presidential administration.
"This really is the American story of a person who's worked hard [and] is dedicated to public service," said Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland. "Carolyn Colvin has never shied away from a challenge."
The hearing was sharply different in tone from the one Colvin's predecessor experienced seven years ago. Astrue was nominated by Bush shortly after the administration sought to restructure Social Security through a partial privatization, an idea that was unpopular with lawmakers in both parties. He managed to deflect questions about the plan and was confirmed by the Senate a month after the hearing.
Advocacy groups for seniors and the disabled have raised no objections over Colvin's appointment. The Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare wrote lawmakers on Monday to argue that her "extensive experience … makes her uniquely qualified to provide leadership to this vitally important agency."
Max Richtman, the group's president and CEO, predicted after the hearing that Colvin would have little trouble winning confirmation.
"On the merits, I don't think there's a problem," he said.
Yet Social Security has faced renewed scrutiny this year. Most recently, House Republicans made public last week a consultant's report that found the agency had spent nearly $300 million and six years developing a computer system to speed processing of disability claims that has proved dysfunctional.
Hatch mentioned the report in his opening statement — and said he looked forward to learning about the issue — but then did not ask Colvin about it.
"It is not hard to find enormous amounts of questionable and likely wasteful spending and payments when you read thoroughly the numerous reports by Social Security's Office of Inspector General," Hatch said.
Democrats and Republicans have said the agency uses inconsistent criteria to determine which field offices to close. The Senate Special Committee on Aging reported in June that local officials often were not notified of pending closures until after the decision was final. Social Security has shuttered 64 offices in recent years, according to the report.
The issue didn't come up Thursday.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, pressed Colvin on tension between management and employees. He said some unions have said the relationship is "as bad as it gets in the entire federal government."
Colvin acknowledged the problem. She said she was "amazed to see the deterioration" when she returned to the agency in 2011. Union leaders have applauded Colvin for being more transparent than past leaders, but they've also questioned some of her policies — such as emphasizing online services that were previously performed in field offices.
"When you have a huge organization like SSA … it takes a long time to change the culture and the relationships," she said.
The independent agency has just more than 60,000 employees, nearly 11,000 of them in Maryland.
Democrats, who could lose control of the Senate in the November elections, want to expedite Colvin's confirmation. It is not clear when the chamber will vote.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee, pointed to Colvin's extensive resume and said he will support her. The job is especially important, he said, because the agency interacts directly with so many people.
"Sometimes government is kind of an abstraction," Wyden said. "That is not the case with Social Security."
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