A worsening customer service crisis at the Social Security Administration has prompted three of its former commissioners to urge the U.S. Congress to fix the annual budgeting process that has starved the agency of the resources it needs to do its job. A letter calling for administrative budget reforms signed by the former commissioners—two appointed by Democratic presidents, and one by a Republican—was delivered to congressional leadership last week.
Congress cut the agency’s budget nearly 11% between fiscal years 2010 and 2019, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, while the number of beneficiaries grew by more than 16%. Social Security has responded to the cuts by closing 67 of the field offices that provide critical service to the public since 2010. Wait times have soared on its toll-free phone line, and there is a very large backlog of disability insurance claims waiting for decisions on appeal.
Social Security benefits were removed from the federal budget under legislation enacted in 1990, but administrative expenses continued to be counted due to an interpretation of the legislation by the Office of Management and Budget. Since passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which places caps on nondefense discretionary spending, the Social Security budget has been forced to compete with other federal spending priorities—for example, the National Institutes of Health. The struggle to manage federal spending under those caps is starting to heat up again as Congress begins turning its attention to the budget for next year.
The trio of former commissioners is proposing a legislative fix to the problem. The letter is signed by Ken Apfel, who served as commissioner during the Clinton administration, Jo Anne Barnhart, who was nominated by President George W. Bush and served from 2001 to 2007; and Carolyn Colvin, who served from 2013 to 2017 during the Obama administration.
The former commissioners propose that Congress eliminate the requirement that the Social Security administrative budget be included in the caps. Congressional appropriations committees would still approve the agency’s budget. “But importantly,” they write, “the Committees would be able to approve the funding that would be needed for the Social Security Administration to provide adequate service to the public.”
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