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11 GOP senators threaten to block Colvin for Social Security

WASHINGTON — A group of Republican senators raised concerns Wednesday about the way President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Social Security Administration has handled a troubled computer contract for the agency, an unexpected development that cast doubt on her confirmation.

Carolyn W. Colvin, an Odenton resident with a long history in Maryland state and federal government, was nominated in June to lead the Woodlawn-based agency and sailed through her confirmation hearing in August — with all but two members of the Senate Finance Committee approving her for the job. Colvin has served as acting commissioner since early 2013.

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But all 11 Republicans on the committee signed a letter to Colvin on Wednesday noting that new information had come to light about a dysfunctional, $300 million computer system intended to speed the processing of disability claims. An interim inspector general report has raised questions about whether agency employees misled Congress about the extent of the problem, the lawmakers said.

"We cannot in good faith allow a nomination for any position that requires the advice and consent of the Senate to proceed to a vote as long as the specter of a potential criminal investigation surrounds the nominee and/or those in their inner circle," read the letter from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the committee, and its other GOP members.

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A spokeswoman for Social Security said the agency had received the letter and would respond as soon as possible.

"Agency representatives previously briefed members of the Senate and House regarding the issues raised in the Senate Republican Finance members' letter," the spokeswoman, LaVenia LaVelle, said in the statement. "The acting commissioner will respond timely and fully to the members requests, and continue to cooperate with Congress and any related investigation."

Aides have long noted that the troubled computer system, which was intended to speed the processing of disability claims, was implemented under Colvin's predecessor, Michael J. Astrue. And they have said that Colvin began a thorough investigation of the matter when she took over the agency last year.

Still, the opposition from Republicans in the waning days of the lame-duck session of Congress threw Colvin's confirmation into question. The current Congress is set to adjourn as soon as next week — and the Senate calendar will become increasingly full between now and then, especially as lawmakers attempt to approve a government funding bill by Dec. 11.

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While senators have sped through several confirmations since the midterm elections, they have dealt mainly with non-controversial appointments. Colvin's term, if she is confirmed, would last for six years, well into the next presidential administration.

And when the new Congress gavels in next month, the Senate will be controlled by Republicans, giving concerns raised by Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee added weight.

Neither of Maryland's Democratic senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, responded to request for comment Wednesday night. Cardin is a member of the Finance Committee, which oversees Social Security.

The agency came under scrutiny this year amid revelations that it spent nearly $300 million and six years developing the computer system for disability claims, and it still does not work. The problems were known during Colvin's confirmation hearing, and while Hatch mentioned them at the time he did not ask Colvin about them.

In their letter, the senators pointed to a news release from a House subcommittee last month regarding an interim inspector general report that raised the possibility of a criminal investigation. The letter said the senators have sought to better understand the nature of that investigation but have been unable to do so because the probe is continuing.

"We have received information from whistleblowers that the ongoing investigation has centered around the activities of certain members of your immediate office, including several high-level agency officials," the senators wrote. "Therefore, it is essential to address your role with respect to this inquiry before each of us can make an informed decision on how to vote for your nomination once it reaches the full Senate for consideration."

A Morgan State University graduate, Colvin joined Social Security as a clerk in 1963. She became deputy commissioner for programs and policy in 1996 and deputy commissioner of operations in 1998.

Colvin also served as Maryland's secretary of human resources from 1989 to 1994 under Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Social Security, which serves 59 million beneficiaries — roughly one in five Americans — has also come under criticism this year for closing field offices, a perennial backlog in disability claims, and its handling of discrimination complaints.

The agency has more than 60,000 employees, nearly 11,000 of them in Maryland.

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