Ranking Member Becerra Opening Statement at Social Security Subcommittee Hearing on Waste, Fraud, and Abuse

May 18, 2016
Press Release

(Remarks as prepared)

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing.

SSA must work continuously to balance its duties to provide good customer service to the millions of Americans who have earned and rely on their benefits, while at the same time protecting the Trust Funds from waste, fraud and abuse.

With the aging of the Baby Boomers, the number of Americans receiving Social Security has grown by more than 10 million over the past decade.

Every day, SSA’s front-line employees work to make sure Americans receive the benefits they’ve earned, while at the same time diligently protecting Social Security by preventing and detecting fraud and errors.

SSA’s highly-trained employees are the first line of defense against fraud.

However, inadequate funding jeopardizes Social Security’s mission of ensuring Americans receive the benefits they have earned for themselves and their families, as well as providing them with the service they paid for with their payroll tax contributions.

Mr. O’Carroll rightly points out in his written statement:  “As workloads have increased and its own workforce has undergone a retirement wave, SSA has encountered a difficult fiscal climate and resulting budgetary constraints.”

From 2010 to 2016, SSA’s dedicated program integrity funding saw a 68 percent increase while SSA’s basic operating budget fell by 10 percent – that is the money SSA needs to ensure Americans receive their earned benefits.

And while SSA’s operating budget fell, the number of beneficiaries has continued to steadily increase.

The result is SSA is being left with too little to perform its essential functions of: determining eligibility for retirement, survivor and disability benefits, paying benefits accurately and on time, responding to taxpayers who call or visit seeking help, and updating benefits when circumstances change.

Given the magnitude of the cuts and the size of its workloads, SSA cannot cope simply by “prioritizing” its workloads or becoming more efficient.

Social Security is already extremely efficient: its administrative costs are less than one percent of its benefit payments. 

However, SSA has 9 percent fewer front-line staff than it had in fiscal year 2010. It should not be a surprise that we are seeing backlogs growing and long wait times for services. 

More and more Americans who are already receiving benefits are experiencing hardship due to a growing “hidden backlog” of unprocessed work. For example: A widow was forced to survive on her lower spousal benefit and was unable to buy a headstone for her deceased spouse, due to delays in switching her to her higher widow’s benefit.

People with severe disabilities are also suffering.

After several years of sustained investments, SSA in 2012 was able to bring down the average waiting time for a disability appeals hearing to just under a year.

However, since that time, repeated cuts to SSA’s operating budget have eroded this improvement and today the delays are worse than ever – standing at 522 days as of last month.

Callers to SSA’s 800-number have to wait an average of 15 minutes before their call can be answered.

Since 2010, SSA has closed 60 full-service field offices as well as 490 smaller contact stations that served rural areas.

As a result, beneficiaries have to travel farther and farther to their reach their nearest Social Security field office – which is only open to them four and a half days a week.

Congress’ current trend of prioritizing program integrity activities at the expense of service to applicants, beneficiaries, and taxpayers is unsustainable.

Social Security’s budget should not be treated as a zero-sum game. We should not be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In my six years as Ranking Member of this Subcommittee, not once have we held a hearing on SSA’s operating budget.

There is no question that funding for program integrity is absolutely integral to ensuring that Americans receive benefits in the right amount, and that only those who are eligible receive payments.

But it is equally important to ensure that: SSA has the tools and resources needed to provide quick and timely service to the millions of Americans receiving Social Security, and to the millions more who will – in the coming years – be applying and qualifying for the benefits they and their families have earned.

Finally, I want to congratulate IG Pat O’Carroll on his retirement

Mr. O’Carroll, thank you for testifying today and for your 12 years of service as SSA’s Inspector General. Congratulations on your upcoming retirement.