Social Security nominee will face questions from allies
By JOHN FRITZE and The Baltimore Sun
Jun 27, 2014 | 8:35 PM
— President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Social Security Administration will face tough questioning from lawmakers during her confirmation — and many of the hardest queries could come from members of her own party.
Carolyn W. Colvin, chosen by Obama this month to head the Woodlawn-based agency, has sparked little opposition from seniors groups or Republicans, but a growing number of Democrats are voicing concerns about cuts the agency has made under her watch.
More than a hundred House Democrats have signed a letter urging the agency to reconsider some of those reductions. Colvin's nomination, meanwhile, came days after a Senate hearing in which Democrats and Republicans pressed officials on field office closures.
"Closing an office is a very bipartisan concern," said Richard Fiesta, executive director of the union-affiliated Alliance for Retired Americans.
Fiesta said Colvin "inherited a bad situation" at the agency, but said that "there needs to be some better, rational justification" for how the agency decides which offices to close and how to involve the public.
Social Security, with 58 million beneficiaries, has shuttered 64 offices since the fiscal year that ended in 2010, according to a report released this month by the Senate Special Committee on Aging. The average wait time for a visitor without an appointment increased 40 percent over that time.
More than 43 million customers visited one of roughly 1,200 offices last year.
Responding to budget cuts from Congress, the agency has reduced hours, stopped offering "Numi-lite" printouts of Social Security numbers — which can be used in place of a Social Security card in some instances — and plans to discontinue providing benefit verification letters in person.
Colvin, an Odenton resident who has served as acting Social Security commissioner since February 2013, did not respond to a request for comment. But the agency, which has 60,000 employees, has argued repeatedly that if lawmakers want those services they must be willing to pay for them.
Administrative funding at Social Security has remained essentially flat since 2010 — at roughly $11.5 billion annually — despite large increases in claims due in part to retiring baby boomers.
"Without timely, adequate and sustained funding, we simply cannot maintain the quality of service the public expects and deserves," Nancy Berryhill, deputy commissioner for operations at the agency, told senators this month.
Colvin's confirmation, which is likely to take place in an election year that could decide control of the Senate, is also sure to spark debate over whether changes are needed to maintain the program's solvency beyond 2033. That's the year agency trustees say it will no longer be able to pay seniors all they are owed.
In truth, the Social Security commissioner has virtually no role in those decisions. Past nominees have navigated such controversial questions by pointing out that fact.
But they are in charge of managing internal issues.
In a June 20 letter, House Democrats wrote Colvin to "strongly urge" her to reconsider some of the service cuts "and find solutions that protect the Americans who rely on you for help."
Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Donna F. Edwards and John Sarbanes — all Maryland Democrats — signed the letter.
The agency also has long wrestled with a disability claims backlog that has been a perennial issue at congressional hearings. Disability claimants with appeals at the Baltimore office, for instance, wait an average of 17 months for a hearing before an administrative law judge — among the longest wait times in the nation.
Colvin, a former state official who worked for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, will be vetted by the Senate Finance Committee. Its members, who are working against an August deadline to address the nation's dwindling highway trust fund, have not yet scheduled a hearing on her nomination.
Several Republicans on the committee questioned by The Baltimore Sun did not raise reservations about Colvin.
"As of right now, I don't know of anything," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the committee's top-ranking Republican, when asked if he had immediate concerns.
Outside groups, including employee unions at the agency, have been generally supportive. Cynthia Ennis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents headquarters employees, said Colvin has communicated regularly with her members.
"If it's on the merits, I think she will get it," predicted Louis D. Enoff, a former acting commissioner under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "I'm sure there's going to be a lot of tough questions, but she's the best person the president could have nominated for that job."
If confirmed, Colvin would succeed Michael J. Astrue, a George W. Bush appointee whose six-year term expired last year. She would serve her own six-year term, continuing on well into the next presidential administration.
Colvin, 72, breezed through her confirmation hearing for the deputy position in 2010, taking only a handful of questions from three senators and clearing the full Senate without opposition. But Colvin, who was nominated to the job in September of 2009, waited 15 months for the hearing to be scheduled.
Colvin served as Maryland's secretary of human resources from 1989 to 1994 under Schaefer. She joined Social Security in 1994, rose to deputy commissioner for programs and policy in 1996 and was named deputy commissioner of operations two years later.
"She's going to be asked about a lot of hot-button issues she'll have to respond to," said Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "But she knows the Social Security program inside out and I think she'll handle all of those questions really well."