Social Security waits anxiously for Trump to nominate commissioner

When will Donald Trump nominate a Social Security commissioner?

As he moves quickly to build his administration, President Donald Trump has offered little indication about who he will nominate as the next commissioner of the Social Security Administration — an agency that has gone four years without a permanent leader.

The Woodlawn-based agency faces massive challenges administering its programs to 61 million beneficiaries, and is heading toward unpredictable battles over cuts to entitlement programs favored by congressional Republicans.

New presidents often wait months before naming a Social Security commissioner. But the agency has now been without a Senate-confirmed leader since 2013, when the term of Bush appointee Michael J. Astrue ended.

Then-President Barack Obama took more than a year to nominate Carolyn W. Colvin to be commissioner. Her confirmation stalled in the Senate in 2014, and Obama did not propose a new nominee.

It has been an unusually long wait for an agency that affects so many Americans.

"You really don't have a person of authority at the Social Security Administration," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Senate Finance Committee. "It does raise an alarm that it's not a priority."

The agency is likely to be at the center of upcoming fights over entitlement programs, such as whether to raise the retirement age for Social Security benefits or make changes to disability insurance. Trump has muddied the debate by promising repeatedly not to cut Medicare or Social Security — pledges that broke with GOP orthodoxy.

A White House spokeswoman did not respond to questions about timing for a nominee. A spokesman for Social Security said the current acting director, Nancy A. Berryhill, will "provide strong leadership and will continue to move the agency forward until a permanent commissioner is nominated" and confirmed.

Berryhill started at Social Security as a student employee more than 40 years ago. She became the deputy commissioner for operations in 2013.

The agency, which employs about 11,000 workers in Maryland, has not been led by a Senate-confirmed commissioner since Astrue completed his six-year term in January 2013.

The agency has often had to wait for a nominee. President George W. Bush did not nominate a commissioner until six months into his first term. President Barack Obama waited more than a year after Astrue's departure to nominate Colvin for the job.

Colvin's confirmation initially appeared secure — the Senate Finance Committee approved her on a 22-2 vote — but it stalled when Republicans raised concerns about a faulty $300 million computer system at the agency.

Colvin continued to lead Social Security as acting commissioner. The Maryland woman retired in January.

A spokeswoman for Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch blamed the agency's current situation on the failure of the Obama administration to address the concerns raised by the GOP or nominate a new commissioner after Colvin's confirmation stalled.

"Chairman Hatch agrees that an agency benefits from permanent leadership, and remains disappointed in the Obama administration's lack of seriousness in trying to ensure that such would be the case for SSA," spokeswoman Julia Lawless said.

An organization chart released by the agency after the inauguration indicated that the commissioner, four of eight deputy commissioners and the general counsel at Social Security are all "acting" leaders — in part reflecting the usual exodus of political appointees that takes place after a presidential transition.

Trump, like all presidents, has been concerned primarily with putting a cabinet in place. Senate Democrats have slow-walked that process, with fewer cabinet secretaries confirmed at this point than for any president in modern times.

Trump has chosen leaders for some agencies that are similar to Social Security.

He named Seema Verma, a health policy consultant, to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services just weeks after his election in November. He named Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency in December.

Trump surprised many with his positions on entitlements during the campaign. Republicans generally hold that programs like Social Security need to be changed to ensure they remain solvent.

Trump said during a GOP primary debate last year that it was his "intention to leave Social Security as it is." He tweeted in 2015 that he "was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid."

But other Republicans, including those close to Trump, have suggested he will have to make some changes. His nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, told lawmakers he believes officials must consider increasing the retirement age for Social Security.

The full retirement age for people born after 1960 is 67.

"If we do nothing, then by the time I retire there will be an across-the-board 22 percent cut to Social Security benefits," Mulvaney told the Senate during his confirmation hearing last month. "The only thing I know to do is to tell the president the truth."

Tom Leppert, a former mayor of Dallas who was Trump's point person at the agency after the election, has offered support in the past for privatizing portions of the program.

Commissioners have little sway over such policies — and that's one reason some advocates said they are not worried about a delay in a nomination. Questions about solvency and eligibility for the agency's programs generally fall to Congress.

"I'm not concerned about the organization functioning," said Max Richtman, the president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "I'm a lot more concerned about the future of the program with a Republican Congress and a Republican administration."

While commissioners are unlikely to get caught up in policy debates, they are responsible for administering the programs. The agency's leaders have faced scrutiny in the past for closing public field offices, eliminating mailed notices to beneficiaries and moving more customer services online.

The agency has struggled for years with massive backlogs in reviewing disability claims. It takes an average of 20 months to schedule an appeal hearing on a disability claim in the Baltimore office, where more than 8,000 cases are pending.

Colvin, a veteran of the agency, said she never felt hamstrung as an "acting" commissioner to deal with those problems. She said she was able to get approval for budgets from Congress, advance regulations and keep the agency humming.

Noting it can take months for the Senate to confirm commissioners, Colvin said she tried to put staff in place in anticipation of a potentially lengthy transition. She said career civil servants were prepared to take over deputy commissioner positions when political appointees stepped down after Trump's inauguration.

"What we tried to do was put a strong team in place," Colvin said. "They can move the agency forward without missing a beat."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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