May 3, 2007

Tenor Of Social Security Subcommittee Hearing

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.


Anonymous said...

Good that the Commissioner didn't let those pompous windbags push him around.

Anonymous said...

The committee members are nothing short of ridiculous--everyone knows that ssa is short staffed due to short funding, resulting in increasingly worsening backlogs. This has been known for years. the employee unions have hammered this issue repeatedly. All that is happening now is more political posturing. ssa is doomed.