Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue’s six-year term expires January 19, 2013. His successor must be confirmed by the Senate, in a process that Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, expects will take a couple of months from the hearings to a vote.
Michael Astrue was still Commissioner of Social Security on 25 January. His term ran out on January 19 but the Social Security Act says he can stay in his job until a successor is confirmed. He hasn’t resigned so he’s still Commissioner. The same is true for Deputy Commissioner Carolyn Colvin. The rumor had been that Astrue did not intend to stay on after his term ended. So far, he’s proving that rumor wrong. Astrue does seem to be clearing items off his desk. Take a look at what he just sent over to the Office of Management and Budget. I wonder if he’s planning to send over his version of new mental impairment listings before leaving.
The SSA has more than 11,000 employees at its headquarters in Woodlawn, Maryland. It provides benefits to retirees, disabled Americans and the children of deceased workers. The SSA paid more than $778,000,000,000 (that is billion) in benefits to 56 million people. The SSA’s budget rivals that of the Department Of Defense.
Carolyn Colvin is Astrue’s Deputy, but she is not considered to be a serious contender to replace him. She was confirmed by the Senate two years ago. Her term also expires January 19, 2013. She is a former secretary of the state Department of Human Resources and served as special assistant to Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation.
One possibility that comes to mind is that there will never be an announcement of an Obama nominee for Commissioner of Social Security. Astrue will leave the job in the near future and Carolyn Colvin will become the Acting Commissioner for the rest of Obama’s term as President. Colvin as Acting Commissioner, unlike Astrue and unlike a nominated and confirmed Commissioner of Social Security, would be serving at the President’s will. If Colvin displeased the President, she could be removed from the job by Obama nominating and the Senate confirming a Commissioner. I think it is more than possible that the President has had his fill of an independent Social Security Commissioner and wants someone who is truly on his team. I have no inside information. This is just my speculation. Of course, this can’t happen if Astrue keeps hanging around.
Nancy Altman, who helps lead two Social Security advocacy groups, has emerged as a potential contender. She has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO and the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), a network of 1,400 ALJs who decide disability insurance claims. The endorsement of the AALJ is the kiss of death; so, she cannot really be considered a serious contender for the job.
Nevertheless, Judge Randall Frye, president of the AALJ, has said the AALJ is backing Ms. Altman for Commissioner because of her expertise.
For her part, Ms. Altman has said “My goal would be to restore confidence in the agency and to let the workforce know how appreciative I am and the American people are for the work that is being done.”
One of the major challenges the next commissioner will confront is building administrative support to decrease the long backlogs in the disability insurance program. This is something that Commissioner Astrue was not able to accomplish despite all of the ALJs he was allowed to place on the federal pay roll and the increase in budget that he was granted. The new Commissioner will also be challenged to improve the quality of service that SSA employees are reputed to provide to the public. Case workers and administrative staff members at SSA are notorious for their abrupt manners and surly attitudes resulting in a low level of public service. The Agency will be challenged to provide a higher level of service.
Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, was noted to remark that “This is an opportunity at the Social Security Administration to really take it to the next level, and it’s important to make sure it has the resources it needs”.
President Obama’s reelection lifted much of the cloud that hung over the health care industry in Massachusetts, where caregivers and insurers anticipated a push to repeal the national health care overhaul if Mitt Romney had become president. But Romney was not elected.
“This outcome provides an opportunity for greater cooperation and less contention,” said James Roosevelt Jr., chief executive of Tufts Health Plan.
But health care organizations are still seeking clarity on many features of ObamaCare, also known as the Affordable Care Act, many of which have not yet taken effect. The federal overhaul includes regulations requiring insurers to invest in new technology and funds for expanding Medicaid and revamping Medicare payments as the states press forward with their own efforts to rein in costs and build more integrated health care networks.
Obama’s victory “removes a layer of uncertainty for health plans, providers, and employers,” said Andrew Dreyfus, chief executive of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the state’s largest health insurer.
In 2012 James Robinson Jr wrote an op-ed with Robert L. Reynolds, a Republican and CEO of Putnam Investments, where he advocates raising the Social Security retirement age at a brisker pace and cutting back the growth of benefits with a different Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Robinson wrote “.. we should accelerate the rise in Social Security’s full-benefit retirement age from age 67 to 68 by 2030 and then index the full benefit age for future generations to gains in longevity. Life expectancy past age 65 has risen nearly 50 percent since 1940, when Social Security first began regular monthly payments. That said, we should improve disability options for those engaged in physically demanding jobs. No one expects coal miners or telephone line crews to work into their late 60s.”
He went further to say “On the benefits side, we should change the way we calculate the cost-of-living adjustment for all beneficiaries, by utilizing a revised Consumer Price Index which most economists agree more accurately reflects the rate of inflation for the expenses most seniors incur. Such a change would curb the rate of increase in benefits for future generations of retirees [...]“
Considering President Obama’s attitude and behavior with respect to the “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations I am betting he will select James Robinson Jr to be the next Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
The press and public have understandably focused in recent weeks on high-profile appointments such as the secretaries of state, defense and treasury as President Barack Obama builds his second-term team. They also should pay close attention to the search for a man or woman to serve as commissioner of the Social Security Administration — a post central to the national welfare and, with a six-year term, an appointment that will continue into the next presidency.
The Social Security Administration, headquartered just outside Baltimore in Woodlawn, touches the lives and pocketbooks of nearly every American. With this cornerstone of our social compact under demographic pressure and political threat, the president's choice for a successor is vitally important.
Washington is a land of partisan extremes these days, a place where compromise is an orphan and dealmakers are a rare sight. Inevitably, Social Security will again be a political football as Congress attempts to manage America's fiscal challenges. As a veteran of more than a few policy debates and political fights — some of which didn't end the way I'd have liked — I want suggest what I think are key job requirements for the new commissioner:
•The nominee should bring substantial managerial experience. The Social Security Administration has roughly 62,000 employees. The agency processes payments of $4.5 billion to 6 million recipients every month. It needs a strong CEO capable of running a large and complex organization that does high-stakes work.
•The nominee should bring considerable policy expertise. For more than 20 years, actuaries have battled, often very publicly, over the viability of Social Security's funding mechanism. It would be profoundly foolish today to ignore the demographic challenges the retirement of baby boomers will pose to the system. The remedy should not be a Band-Aid, but structural reform for the long haul.
The next commissioner, unlike some predecessors, should bring to the job a detailed historical knowledge of Social Security — of decisions that have made the system stronger and of others that have weakened it.
•Diplomatic skills will be essential. The commissioner of Social Security will need to deal not only with criticism from his or her natural political opponents but also with substantial pressure from natural allies. A commissioner perceived as a zealot or out of touch with the private sector will have a hard time advancing arguments for a new structure of benefits or changes to Social Security's long term funding.
•The commissioner of Social Security needs considerable fortitude. One of the most important aspects of the job is appearing before Congress (approximately four times a year, though the frequency can shift). For at least the next two years, that will mean confronting a Republican-controlled Congress whose leadership lives in fear of tea partiers whose rhetoric would suggest they'd like to see Social Security dismantled altogether. The next commissioner of Social Security will need the strength of will and command of facts necessary to stand toe-to-toe with well-prepared congressional foes.
•Finally, the next commissioner will have to be someone passionately dedicated to the principles that underlie the Social Security system and eloquent in articulating those principles.
The vast majority of Americans want a fair system that offers dignity to the elderly while preserving economic opportunity for current and future workers. They deserve a commissioner who can ensure Social Security operates properly, provide a vision for its long-term future and lead the fight to preserve it from political critics or demographic threats.
(Bill Bradley is a former Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey)