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New Commissioner, New Proposals, Old Issues

Published on August 1st, 2019

Let’s start with the basics: the Social Security system is critical to life in the United States.

  • As of May, 2019, more than 68 million Americans receive some benefits from Social Security – either retirement, disability or survivors benefits, or Supplemental Security Income.
  • Social Security keeps millions of Americans out of poverty and for many seniors is their sole source of income during retirement years.
  • Totally disabled individuals receiving only SSI are still about 25% below the poverty level in the United States.
  • With more than 60,000 employees Social Security’s operations are immense, complex and under constant scrutiny from Congress, the media, a multitude of unions, and the public.

Therefore, it should be a good thing that for the first time since 2013 the Social Security Administration has a confirmed Commissioner. Andrew Saul, nominated by President Trump, has been approved by the Senate to lead this massive, critical government agency through January 2025. The Senate finally acted after refusing to vote on President Obama’s nominee for the position, leaving SSA under control of an interim Commissioner.

Mr. Saul has little direct experience with Social Security. He has served in other public positions and on the board of directors of the Manhattan Institute which has attacked and denigrated the Social Security system in the past, calling the program “too generous.” Whether Mr. Saul will attempt to implement those views while Commissioner remains to be seen.

However, Congress has a new proposal which will support the Social Security system for many decades into the future. The Chairperson of the House of Representatives Social Security Subcommittee of Ways and Means, Congressman John Larson, has proposed the Social Security 2100 Act. His proposal will expand benefits, improve the Cost-of-Living calculation, make sure the minimum retirement benefits are greater than the poverty level.

To pay for this program, Congressman Larson’s proposal calls for reinstating payroll tax contributions for persons with income in excess of $400,000 (the top 0.4% of wage earners), and a gradual increase over 23 years in the contribution rate paid by all employees. According to Social Security’s Chief Actuary, this would cost the average worker about 50 cents a week more in payroll taxes, and keep the Trust Funds solvent through 2092.

Will this bill pass? With the House and Senate so politically divided, this is uncertain. However, those of us who work with families and individuals dependent on these programs, must let Congressional members in both parties know that Social Security benefits are essential and must be protected.

Aside from the macro issues, the new Commissioner will have to make decisions:

  • Whether to continue manipulating the Listings of Impairments to make approval of disability claims more difficult;
  • Whether to continue a push for video hearings to replace face-to-face administrative law judge hearings; how to deal with Continuing Disability Reviews and how to improve the ability of persons with disability to return to the work force;
  • How to continue the downtrend in the hearings backlog without the overwhelming push on ALJs and staff for more productivity with less resources.

As concerned citizens and advocates, all of these issues need our attention.

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