Social Security without permanent leader

Six months after former Social Security Administration commissioner Michael J. Astrue left his post, the Obama administration has yet to nominate a replacement — leaving a leadership gap as the agency wrestles with shrinking budgets and hard choices.

Interim leaders at the Woodlawn-based agency, which serves nearly 57 million beneficiaries, are making lasting decisions about whether to close public field offices and furlough employees as they implement $890 million in budget cuts called for under sequestration.

And like all federal agencies, the Social Security Administration is bracing for the likelihood of another round of spending cuts when the new fiscal year begins in October.

Social Security payments are protected from the across-the-board budget cuts, but the 63,000-employee agency faces potentially significant policy changes. President Barack Obama has proposed a new measure of inflation — the so-called chained CPI — that would reduce the amounts SSA pays seniors over time, for instance.

Advocates have praised acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin, a former Maryland state official, for managing this year's budget cuts and being more communicative than Astrue. But they say anyone leading an agency the size of the Social Security Administration without Senate confirmation has limited power to advocate for resources and make controversial decisions.

"They should try to get a name up here as quickly as possible," Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said. "Clearly, Social Security has professional leadership. But it does not help the agency to go that period without a confirmed leader."

A White House spokesman declined to answer questions about why the nomination had not yet been made. Astrue was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007. Because he served a set, six-year term, his departure was foreseeable.

Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle said in a statement that Obama had "placed his trust in Carolyn Colvin" and that she would "continue to provide the strong leadership required to make the tough decisions to move the agency forward as long as the president wants her to serve."

Colvin was secretary of Maryland's Department of Human Resources from 1989 to 1994 and served as special assistant to Maryland's secretary of transportation from 2009 until 2011.

The increasingly partisan environment in the Senate has delayed dozens of Obama nominees. Analysts say anyone the president chooses to head Social Security will likely face a rigorous review.

The Senate confirmed several presidential nominees last month — including Marylander Thomas E. Perez for Secretary of the U.S. Labor Department — only after Democratic majority leaders threatened to change the rules to make it more difficult for Republicans to filibuster those appointments.

Obama has replaced about half of his cabinet in his second term, appointing new leaders at the departments of State, Treasury, Defense and Transportation, among others.

But advocates for Social Security say the possibility of a protracted fight over a potential nominee to lead the agency makes it that much more important for the administration to get the process started.

"A lot of people would have a lot of questions for the nominee — we understand that makes nominating someone complicated," said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP. "But that only highlights how important it is to have permanent leadership."

There is precedent for delaying a Social Security nomination. President Ronald Reagan kept Texas native Martha A. McSteen on as acting commissioner from 1983 until she retired in 1986. But given the challenges facing the agency today, few believe Obama will wait that long.

The Social Security Administration has struggled for years with a backlog of disability insurance claims — about 835,000 cases are pending. The agency also has yet to decide how to administer benefit programs to same-sex married couples in light of the Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

And while Social Security does not add to the federal budget deficit, there are long-term concerns about its solvency. If no adjustments are made, Social Security's trust fund will be exhausted in 2033. That means payroll taxes collected on individuals who are currently working would cover only 75 percent of the payments due to retired seniors.

Last year, the agency administered an estimated $774 billion in benefits.

"At some point we're going to be having a discussion about the big picture," said Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "It's really important to have that element of certainty that you get with someone who has been confirmed as opposed to someone who's serving [on] an active basis."

The more immediate concerns have centered on the agency's administrative budget. Social Security officials said this spring they would muscle through the fiscal year without furloughs, but they have made no such commitment for next year. Field offices that beneficiaries use to file paperwork or ask questions have already cut hours this year.

And now Congress is preparing for another round of budget battles in September, which is when current funding for government operations runs out. Congress also could be forced to again deal with raising the nation's debt ceiling.

Lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Social Security held a hearing in April to discuss those and other challenges.

"We really need a commissioner," Rep. Jim Renacci, an Ohio Republican, said during the hearing. "What can an acting commissioner do when he or she knows that maybe another commissioner will come in and change things?"

Renacci was questioning Daniel Bertoni, a director at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

"Government-wide, whenever we have 'acting' situations, you don't see big, bold moves," Bertoni agreed. "I think it's very difficult for an acting commissioner to be big and bold."

Advocates said Colvin is likely a leading candidate for the nomination. She was confirmed by the Senate as a deputy commissioner in 2010 — so she has already survived the confirmation process once.

Nancy Altman, who helps lead Social Security advocacy groups, has also been touted as a potential nominee.

With more than 11,000 employees in Maryland, the Social Security Administration is one of the state's largest employers.

The agency was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 and settled into the Candler Building in downtown Baltimore after engineers discovered that no structure then available in Washington could support the weight of the paperwork the agency was expected to create.

It moved to Woodlawn in 1960.

Witold Skwierczynski, president of the Social Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Colvin made an early effort to reach out to the agency's labor groups, and communication has improved.

But Skwierczynski echoed concerns about not having Colvin — or someone else — in the pipeline for confirmation.

"If she's unable to effectively pitch for more money, then they're going to close offices, they're going to lay off people and it's going to be a mess," he said. "There are these huge issues, and I think a permanent commissioner would be in a better position to deal with those."

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