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Johnson Opening Statement: Hearing on the Challenges Facing the Next Commissioner of Social Security

April 26, 2013

Good morning and welcome.

Every six years a new Commissioner is nominated and confirmed to lead the Social Security Administration.  Congress deliberately created a term that might straddle political changes in the executive branch to underscore the importance of strong and independent leadership for this agency that touches the lives of every American citizen.  

Former Commissioner Astrue’s six-year term expired in January.  Carolyn Colvin, formerly the Deputy Commissioner, is currently serving as Acting Commissioner until a new Commissioner is confirmed.

Every new Commissioner should first and foremost make sure that Social Security serves the American public well.  Every Commissioner faces challenges at Social Security- some new and some that seem to never go away- and it will be no different for the next Commissioner.   As part of its oversight responsibilities, this Subcommittee takes the time to lay out the challenges facing the new Commissioner and strategies for how best to address them in order to meet the needs of the American public.  

Today, Social Security stands at a crucial crossroads, and it’s going to be up to the new Commissioner to pick the right path.   But no matter what path he or she chooses, two facts are undisputable. 

First, Social Security faces a predictable workload.  Not only are on average 10,000 baby boomers applying for benefits each day but applications for disability benefits, triggered by the great recession and weak recovery, have never been higher.  In just four years the number of applications has grown from 2.3 million in 2008 to 3.2 million last year.  That’s an increase of 40 percent.   

Worse, in recent years the number of people filing for benefits far exceeds the number of new jobs being created.  Since 2010, the average number of people filing for disability benefits is just over 249,000 a month.  At the same time the average number of new jobs created is almost 148,000 each month. 

For the sake of the disability program and the sake of our great country we have got to grow our economy and get Americans back to work.

Second, budget constraints are not going away.  Congress has repeatedly approved bipartisan legislation signed into law by the President, placing stringent and necessary spending caps on appropriations, including the President Obama’s sequestration proposal.   

To assist the next Commissioner, I have asked the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, to take a look at the key challenges facing Social Security and what Social Security is doing about them.  

As we will soon hear, Social Security’s key management challenges include workforce planning, managing its disability programs, modernizing information technology and effectively utilizing its office space.  

GAO concludes that Social Security needs a long-term strategy to address these issues, which it doesn’t have today.  The Social Security Inspector General agrees.  

Several important watch dog groups, including the Social Security Advisory Board, have already called on Social Security to move quickly on developing a long-term plan.  

Congress and the President have also called for a long term strategy in the agency’s funding for fiscal year 2012.   Then Social Security was directed to work with the National Academy of Public Administration to produce a long-range strategic plan.  But to date, Social Security has failed to act.  I will urge the new Commissioner to make this a priority following confirmation.  

As we all know, this Subcommittee continues to take a hard look at the challenges Social Security faces in managing the disability program.  In spite of the vast number of people who still wait over a year for a hearing, I was outraged to learn that the union which represents Administrative Law Judges has just filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for an injunction against Social Security’s guidelines for judges to handle 500 to 700 cases a year.   

The union claims that these goals are “illegal quotas” and that management’s efforts to meet Congress’s and the public’s expectations for timely decisions interfere with judge’s decision-making independence. 

This is the same union that argues that these highly paid federal employees, who have no performance standards and cannot be fired without going through a time-consuming and expensive process, should be allowed to work at home at least one day a week.  

Let me be clear.  No one is telling any judge what decision to make, so their independence is protected.  And despite what the union argues, in FY 2012, 79 percent of judges were hearing at least 500 cases a year.  

Most taxpayers would be surprised to learn that last year the union representing judges spent $1 million in taxpayers’ dollars not on holding hearings, but on union activities.  That’s enough to fund a full year’s salary for nine judges.  

In fact, total taxpayer dollars spent by all four unions at Social Security reached $14.3 million last year, enough to fund a full year’s salary for about 206 employees.   

Taxpayers fund the operations of this program and the essential benefits Social Security provides.  They have a right to expect the agency will be well managed.  

To that end I hope our hearing will help the President nominate the kind of experienced, talented, and decisive leader Social Security and America needs, wants and deserves.