Social Security plays a vital role in the financial security of every American, but as a government agency, the Social Security Administration is subject to the same political pressures and shortcomings you'll find throughout Washington. In particular, three key slots in the leadership structure governing Social Security have been vacant for years. With the White House and Congress under the control of a single party for the first time since the beginning of 2011, the new president should have an opportunity to fill those key vacancies.
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There are two different positions within the Social Security hierarchy whose vacancies have been especially notable. First, there hasn't been a permanent Social Security Commissioner since 2013, with acting commissioners having filled the role for more than four years. Second, the two slots among the Trustees of the Social Security Trust Funds allocated to members of the public have been unfilled since 2008.
Why the SSA hasn't had a permanent commissioner
Social Security commissioners are appointed by the president and subject to confirmation proceedings by the U.S. Senate. Commissioners typically serve a six-year term. That means that although the last permanently appointed commissioner, Michael Astrue, was named by the George W. Bush administration in 2007, he served two-thirds of his term under the Obama administration.
In 2013, Astrue left the position at the end of his term, and Carolyn Colvin was named as acting commissioner of the agency. A year later, Colvin was nominated to become the permanent commissioner, and initial indications from Congress seemed favorable, as she got a 22-2 vote favoring confirmation from the Senate Finance Committee in September 2014. Yet later that year, a controversy arose concerning erroneous payments made by Social Security, with some lawmakers questioning a costly computer program that failed to achieve the goal of speeding up claims processing for benefits. The full Senate never held a full vote on confirming Colvin, but the Obama administration chose not to nominate another candidate, allowing Colvin to serve on an acting basis until just before the Trump inauguration earlier this year.
On Colvin's departure, Nancy Berryhill took over as acting commissioner. The Trump administration, however, hasn't nominated her to take over the role permanently, and it's unclear when the president will do so or choose another candidate entirely for the job. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have emphasized the importance of having a permanently appointed and confirmed commissioner in Social Security. Although Berryhill has said that she can "provide strong leadership and will continue to move the agency forward until a permanent commissioner is nominated," some fear that the agency won't be able to make as much progress under an acting commissioner.
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Public trustees to the Social Security Trust Funds
The Social Security Trust Funds have a board of trustees whose job it is to manage the trust funds, review policies in their management, and report to Congress on an annual basis or if the trust fund balance becomes too small. Four of the six trustees are members of the administration, including the Treasury secretary, the Labor secretary, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Social Security Commissioner.
However, two of the trustees are supposed to be members of the public. That practice began in 1983, when the Greenspan Commission recommended that allowing regular citizens to participate on as trustees would increase "confidence in the integrity of the trust funds" among the public at large. The two public trustees are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve four-year terms, and they must not be from the same political party.
The problem is that the public trustee positions have been vacant during significant periods of time. John Palmer and Thomas Saving left the roles in 2007 following controversy, when the George W. Bush administration used recess appointments to give them a second term over the objections of the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Finance Committee. But by 2008, the two weren't listed on the annual trustees report to Congress, with the signature page listing the positions as vacant. Then, Obama administration appointees Charles Blahouse and Robert Reischauer appeared on trustees reports from 2011 to 2015. When their terms ended, the Obama administration renominated them, but the Senate chose not to confirm them. The 2016 report again had two vacant spaces for the positions.
The value of the public trustees is that they provide an outsider view on the development of Social Security policy to help give current administration cabinet appointees additional perspective. For Social Security to give the public trustee concept credibility, it needs to have public trustees named.
Be ready to wait
As the political environment in Washington remains combative, Americans shouldn't expect quick action to appoint a new permanent Social Security Commissioner or public trustees to the Social Security Trust Funds. With all the controversy surrounding possible changes to Social Security, however, these appointments will be more important than ever.
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