In advance of feared Republican budget cuts, Social Security advocates gathered on Capitol Hill to ward off more hits to a basic federal program that serves nearly all American families.
But while the anxiety over cuts to Social Security might have increased with election victories that will put the GOP in control of Congress in January, everyone gathered in the Capitol Visitors Center meeting room knew that service reductions have been a reality for years, with Congress providing less money than President Obama requested.
“I’m fighting mad and I’m fired up and I’m ready to go,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We need to organize and we need to mobilize and we have to stop agonizing.”
Participants at the forum sponsored by the Strengthen Social Security Coalition are organized and mobilized, but they continue to agonize over recent reductions to staff and service.
From fiscal year 2011 through 2013, the Social Security Administration received $2.7 billion less than Obama requested, followed by a small increase in 2014, according to a Senate Special Committee on Aging report.
“The three previous years of low funding, combined with a wave of retirements and a hiring freeze that has been in place since 2010, led to a reduction in staffing throughout SSA’s operations,” the report said.
Staffing reductions mean service reductions. The notion of doing more with less only goes so far and that is not far enough to maintain service without cuts.
Citing data from the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, the committee said field-office staffing dropped 14 percent from 2011 to 2014.
“In March 2013, SSA estimated that in a single week nearly 12,000 visitors to field offices would have to wait over two hours to be served, a figure that had almost tripled in the previous four months,” according to the Senate report on reductions in face to face SSA services. “Between FY 2010 and January of FY 2013, the average wait time for field office visitors without appointments increased by 40 percent.”
Public hours at field offices have been reduced by the equivalent of one full day a week since 2011, and wait times for callers to the agency’s 800 number averaged more than 17 minutes in 2014, more than triple the five-minute average wait just two years earlier.
Good luck to Social Security clients requesting a hearing after being denied benefits. They’ll need a great deal of patience. There are about 1 million cases in the hearing backlog. SSA estimates it will take an average, not a maximum, of 435 calendar days for those clients to get a decision.
“Shameful” is the word acting SSA commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, had for the backlog.
Colvin, whom Obama has nominated to be the full time commissioner, said, “I’ve had to make some very, very difficult decisions.”
Reduced funding prevented the agency from hiring administrative law judges who conduct the hearings. That led, Colvin said, to “a situation I find not acceptable.”
The agency lost 12,000 employees it could not replace. How do you manage a field office now staffed with two or three employees instead of the eight to 12 who once worked there, she asked. Her answer: “It’s almost impossible.”
She assured the advocates that “there is no grand plan to close down field offices” and she has “absolutely no intention” of using technology to replace workers — particular concerns of Mikulski and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), whose members staff them.
Colvin plans, however, to move more functions to the Internet and envisions “a smorgasbord of options” for clients, including service in person, by telephone, video conference and online.
But whatever the venue, service could get worse.
Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE’s Social Security Council, warned of a “coming tide of budget cuts.”
Mikulski had strong words of praise for federal workers, as is her custom. During an interview, however, she said she expects “a general attack on . . . federal employees. I think it will be an attack on the number, their health-care package and their pension package.”
She also expects a Republican drive to reduce the size of government, an effort she called “misguided,” particularly for the programs that provide direct customer service, such as Social Security.
Mikulski’s prediction: Republicans “are going to get strong resistance from the American people.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.