I thought I would dig up three old posts I made in 2007 concerning appearances of Michael Astrue, who had recently taken over as Commissioner of Social Security, before the House Social Security Subcommittee which had recently passed from Republican to Democratic control. See any parallels to today? Of course, I'm assuming that Andrew Saul will be confirmed as Commissioner. That hasn't happened yet but there seems to be no obstacle to that happening. A few things are different today, however. Michael Astrue came into those hearings with a history of solid accomplishment in other positions that gave him far more credibility with Subcommittee Democrats than Andrew Saul will enjoy. While service overall at Social Security is terrible, the hearing backlog, while still too high, has gone down recently, reducing the impact of one important flashpoint. One important difference is that Michael Astrue's predecessor as Commissioner, Jo Anne Barnhardt, another Republican, was a snake oil salesperson whose deceptions eventually caught up with her. Subcommittee members were still mad about Barnhart's mismanagement in 2007 even though she was gone. At least Saul won't have that legacy to deal with.
February 14, 2007:
May 3, 2007:
February 14, 2007:
The heated nature of the Social Security Subcommittee hearing today on disability backlogs should be making it clear to the Commissioner of Social Security that he will have to do something about those backlogs or Subcommittee members will make his life very difficult.February 15, 2007:
Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio pressed Commissioner Astrue on why Social Security had not hired more ALJs and demanded to ask questions about this of Deputy Commissioner Linda McMahon, who was along but not scheduled to testify. McMahon said she has been told that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is nearly done with a new register from which ALJs could be hired -- after a ten year delay. Jones made no effort to hide her anger about the situation and said at one point that she did not want to hear any more "crap" about regulations and (OPM) holding up getting more ALJs.
Representative Pomeroy of North Dakota said that he thought he had been "lied" to by former Commissioner Barnhart and others about the problems in hiring more ALJs. He said that he wants a Subcommittee hearing with the Director of the Office of Personnel Management and former Commissioner Barnhart as well as the current Commissioner testifying so that he could get to the bottom of why more ALJs have not been hired. Representative Pomeroy talked about the incompetence of OPM and called it a "god-damned outrage."
If anything, my summary understates just how angry Jones and Pomeroy were. I would not want to be the director of OPM if there is another hearing on the ALJ register issue -- and there probably will be.
Even the ranking Republican member, Sam Johnson of Texas, referred to the OPM situation as insanity.
I want to thank Representatives Jones and Pomeroy for their intemperate outbursts at yesterday's Social Security Subcommittee hearing. In a narrow sense, their remarks were unfair to the current Commissioner of Social Security and their criticisms were misplaced, but in a larger sense hitting the Commissioner with a verbal two by four was exactly the right thing to do.
Their remarks were unfair to Commissioner Astrue because he had just started on his job two days earlier. He can hardly be blamed for any mess at Social Security. It is a wonder that he was willing to show up for any Congressional hearing when he may not have even finished filling out his W-4.
The criticisms were also misplaced. Jones and Tubbs were focusing upon the narrow issue of why the Office of Personnel Management has still not produced a new register from which Social Security could hire Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) after having worked on the problem for ten years. This is absurd and unbelievable, but the sad fact is that even if OPM had produced a new register eight years ago, things would be little different at Social Security today. The problem is that there has not been enough money in the budget to hire as many ALJs as have been needed. Social Security has been able to hire the limited number of ALJs they could afford off the old register, making a new register less urgent than it might seem at first blush. Of course, Social Security may have told Jones and Tubbs and others in Congress that the problem was OPM instead of the budget or, at least, implied this. Anyone responsible for such a deception should be ashamed.
In a larger sense, there was an urgent need for the Social Security Subcommittee to demonstrate to upper management at Social Security that there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to change. Social Security needs to understand that frankness about the agency's service delivery problems is essential. There can be no more happy talk that minimizes the current problems while promising that some grand plan to be implemented in the future will solve all of Social Security's problems. That is no longer an option. Upper management must realize that Social Security's staffing situation is dire and urgent action is essential. Solutions that were unthinkable last October because they could be criticized as "paying down the backlog" should be urgent necessities today.
May 3, 2007:
I have posted a good deal on Tuesday's hearing at the House Social Security Subcommittee as well as posted links to accounts in the news media, but there is one subject that I think that I and others have only hinted at and that is the tenor of the hearing.
The head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) was bound to catch hell. That was inevitable and justified. However, it was surprising just how much hell Michael Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security, was catching. Virtually all of the panel members present asked questions of Astrue that suggested a concern about whether Astrue was doing all that he could about the horrendous backlogs at Social Security. None of the panel members was asking softball questions. Representative Tubbs Jones was openly hostile and angry, but Congressman Sander Levin was the most devastating. In a quiet, soft voice Levin said that he did not understand how Astrue and others at Social Security could live with themselves because he felt they were not doing all they could about the backlogs. I really wish I could attach a video of what he said to this blog. Astrue could probably tell himself that Tubbs Jones was just a junior Congressperson who was being a jerk. He cannot dismiss Sander Levin in that way. He is a very senior member and he was expressing great sadness rather than anger.
Why would the Subcommittee members be talking to Astrue like this? He has only been on the job for about two and a half months. Clearly, he is not responsible for the backlogs at Social Security. Everyone who has any familiarity with the situation knows that there are serious limits on what can be done about these backlogs this fiscal year. More budget is clearly needed. Astrue was honest in telling the Subcommittee that the problem with hiring more ALJs has not been OPM but Social Security's budget, which meant that he was telling the Subcommittee that his predecessor had misled the Subcommittee. That should have gotten him some points with the Subcommittee.
There were references to regular meetings between Astrue and the Subcommittee staff. These meetings were referred to as being "frank." The word "frank" is used in diplomacy to indicate open, perhaps angry disagreement. I suspect that "frank" may have been used in the same way to describe the meetings between Astrue and Subcommittee staff. I can only guess at what brought about disagreement, but Astrue's personality probably did not help. Apparently, Astrue may be a bit prickly and he is not the world's best listener. The subjects that are likely to have been the subject of disagreement are Astrue's apparent unwillingness to rapidly expand the ALJ corps, his possible foot dragging on short term measures to keep the hearing backlog from growing (such measures as senior attorney decisions, short form ALJ decisions and re-recon) and his apparent interest in trying to "manage" ALJs.
This hearing was not that far from breaking into a shouting match. If relations between Astrue and the Subcommittee are this bad this early in Astrue's career as Commissioner of Social Security, it is hard to imagine where we are going to be in a year or two. Michael Astrue would be wise to consider carefully how he can improve relations with the Social Security Subcommittee because they have the whip in their hands. Astrue must adjust to them.