Social Security, DHS Say Bush's Budget Falls Short

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The president's budget mostly looks to the next year in a positive light. But there's some frank talk, too.

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue declared his agency "is now at a crossroads." Baby boomers are retiring and "we are facing an avalanche of retirement and disability claims," he wrote in his fiscal 2009 budget message released Monday.

At the Department of Homeland Security, which has been faulted for poor management of contracts and wasting money, Secretary Michael Chertoff suggested Congress show more support for a program that trains and certifies procurement professionals. "Continually trying to punish us by cutting our management budget in order to induce us to hire more people is literally working at cross purposes," he said.

Compared to other agencies, Social Security and Homeland Security are doing fairly well in the budget derby -- President Bush would give both a funding increase of at least 6 percent.

But it may take more than that. It's clear that many federal programs can only run smoothly when properly staffed.

Take Social Security. In recent years, the agency's field offices have lost staff, and waiting times for the public have increased. More than 50 percent of people who call a field office get a busy signal. At some offices, people who show up without an appointment often wait an hour or longer to be checked in, and then wait some more to see a claims representative.

"Without sustained, adequate funding, this situation will only worsen," Astrue wrote in his budget message.

The president and Astrue are not far apart on their requests to Congress. Bush's budget would provide $10.3 billion to cover administrative expenses at the Social Security Administration. Astrue has requested $100 million more, or $10.4 billion, to administer Social Security programs and benefits.

More would be better, according to nearly 50 organizations, including employee groups, that wrote the White House budget office requesting $11 billion for Social Security in fiscal 2009. The Federal Managers Association, for one, contends Bush's budget request does not provide enough funding to tackle a huge backlog, especially disability cases, at the agency.

In a message to employees yesterday, Astrue tried to be reassuring, saying that the 2009 budget "will put us in a better position to handle the onslaught of work we are confronting."

That's partly because Congress last year provided Social Security with $148 million more than Bush sought. Astrue said that funding will permit the agency to lift a hiring freeze, hire 175 administrative law judges and increase the number of call center employees.

Still, the staffing growth seems small. For fiscal 2009, staffing would go up by 351 full-time employees, to 76,821, according to the budget. That remains lower than in 2007, when 77,855 employees were on board.

At the Department of Homeland Security, which has been faulted for poor management of big contracts, the budget seeks $3.1 million -- a small amount in an overall $50.5 billion funding request -- to address a shortage of contracting professionals.

The proposal would allow the department's chief procurement officer to add 100 interns and expand a program that recruits, trains and certifies employees to work in acquisition.

In describing the proposal, Chertoff said, "I am constantly reminded by Congress of the fact that there's concern about our over-reliance on contractors to manage contracts. And that's a fair point.

"But there's only one corrective," he said. "You've got to hire permanent employees to manage those contracts. And in order to do that, we need to have the money to hire those people."

No Cuts Aimed at Retirees

Bush's budget contains no major changes or cuts in programs that affect the pensions and health care provided federal retirees, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association said in a message to members.

The fiscal 2009 budget would provide $15.2 million to upgrade the processing system for federal retirement claims. NARFE has worked with the Office of Personnel Management since 2005 to speed up the authorization of pension payments to new retirees.

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