Johnson: More Than Half a Decade Later, It’s Beyond Time For a Senate-Confirmed Social Security Commissioner

March 7, 2018

Today, the Social Security Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) held a hearing entitled “Lacking a Leader: Challenges Facing the SSA After Over 5 Years of Acting Commissioners.” This hearing comes following a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Social Security Administration (SSA) is in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 with respect to the position of Commissioner of Social Security.

As Chairman Johnson said at the start of today’s hearing:

“Social Security has been without a Senate-confirmed Commissioner since the most recent term expired on January 19, 2013. That’s more than five years. This is the largest single period of vacancy for the head of a Department or major federal agency since the SSA became independent

The SSA needs the strong and consistent leadership of a Senate-confirmed Commissioner to keep the agency focused on providing the service Americans expect, need, and deserve. We are now more than five years into a six-year term. The American people can’t afford to wait any longer.”

At the hearing, the witnesses described difficulties SSA faces as a result of not having a Senate-confirmed Commissioner. They all agree: beneficiaries nationwide are hindered without a permanent Commissioner because the SSA is limited in its ability to create or execute long-term, strategic plans.

Max Stier, President and CEO of Partnership for Public Service, told the Subcommittee that lacking a permanent Commissioner at the SSA is like a classroom being led by a substitute teacher:

“…to have a temporary or acting individual, in my terms it’s the equivalent of having a substitute teacher.  They may be a wonderful educator, but they get no respect. Everyone knows they’re not there for the long term. People understand that they’re not going to take on the tough issues or think about long-term solutions, and their decisions are not going to be viewed as final. It’s a real problem. Great people may be operating in those positions, but they’re operating with two hands behind their back. It’s no way to do things…acting leadership at the top has consequences throughout the organization.”

Rep. George Holding (R-NC) brought up countless other challenges facing the SSA, including the agency’s crumbling IT infrastructure. When he asked the panel why it’s important to have a permanent Commissioner to help tackle these issues, Mr. Stier stressed:

“It begins with leaders. If you don’t have leaders, none of this other stuff is going to matter.”

Members on both sides of the aisle agreed the nomination of a Commissioner is long overdue. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) said:

“There is no way an organization can effectively do its job without someone at the top to plan long term. … This is a pattern, a plague on both parties. No one is individually responsible. No party is individually responsible for this.”

When asked by Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) about why the federal government, including the SSA, faces systemic challenges stemming from a lack of leadership, Mr. Stier responded that, in part:

“…it’s Congress. Congress has a fiduciary responsibility for the Executive Branch… it’s your oversight. This is the rare kind of hearing that you have here, you need more of them. You need to be holding the leadership in the Executive Branch accountable… and you need to be looking at the underlying authorization laws.”

Chairman Johnson closed today’s hearing by asking the President to put forward a nominee to fill this critical role:

“As we have heard today, Social Security has been without a Commissioner for five years. We’ve also heard that Social Security is facing critical challenges that aren’t going to get any better without real leadership. Social Security is just too important to continue to leave on autopilot, and that’s why today I once again ask the President to please nominate a Commissioner without delay. Mr. President, we need a nominee and we need one now. America deserves nothing less.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about today’s hearing.