Column: Congress tries to squeeze more out of Social Security, wrecking its customer service

Acting Social Security Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill at a session of the Senate Aging Committee in 2014, when she was deputy commissioner for operations. Her topic then was a decline in the agency’s customer service. It’s still a problem.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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Since they’ve been unsuccessful (thus far) at cutting Social Security benefits, congressional Republicans are continuing to resort to the backdoor assault on the program by starving its administrative budget. In the latest versions of the agency’s budget under consideration in Washington, the House is planning to keep the budget at the same inadequate funding level as the current year. The ever more ambitious Senate is trying to cut it by $400 million, or nearly 4%.

To retirees, near-retirees and disability applicants the effects aren’t invisible. They show up in deteriorating customer service at every level.

“Years of SSA cuts have already taken their toll,” Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported earlier this month, “leading to long waits on the phone and in field offices for taxpayers and beneficiaries, as well as record-high disability backlogs.”


The Social Security Administration used to mail annual statements of earnings records and prospective benefits to all covered workers, in compliance with a law enacted in 1989. These have now been eliminated for almost all workers, as the agency pleads poverty. It says that anyone can gain access to their records online, but that’s a lousy substitute as long as millions of workers and retirees have only spotty access to the internet or lack the ability to navigate the web.

You can expect all these problems to keep getting worse.

Years of SSA cuts have already taken their toll, leading to long well as record-high disability backlogs.

— Kathleen Romig, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

We’ve reported on the impact of cuts in the agency’s administrative budget before, noting that there’s no rational reason for Congress to impose these cuts. That’s because Social Security’s core administrative budget comes not from the general federal budget, but mostly from the payroll contributions made by workers and their employers — and the spending is very efficient, coming to less than 1% of total benefits. (The agency also fronts administrative services to Medicare and the Supplemental Security Income program, for which it’s reimbursed at least partially from the general treasury.)

Nevertheless, Congress by law still holds the purse strings, and has been drawing them tighter over time. That’s happened even as the agency’s caseload has greatly expanded since 2010 by about 14%, to 63.3 million retirees, disabled persons and their families. The agency’s core budget will have fallen 16% from an inflation-adjusted $12 billion since fiscal 2010 if the Senate cuts go through. The House would freeze the budget for fiscal 2018 at the 2017 level of $10.5 billion in fiscal 2018, and the Senate would cut it to about $10.1 billion.

The sole area of long-term growth in the budget has been a separate appropriation for “integrity funding,” which essentially means ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse in the disability program, a favorite congressional hobby horse. That line item has grown to about $1.7 billion (in the budget proposals of President Trump, the House and the Senate) from an inflation-adjusted $871 million in fiscal 2010, Romig calculates.

Whether that search for fraud is worth the money is hard to gauge, since the level of improper payment in Social Security disability has been estimated at less than 1%, with underpayment a bigger problem than overpayment. A far greater impact on disability applicants is the record backlog. The Social Security Administration has been struggling with that issue for nearly two decades, but has been unable to get a handle on it consistently because of congressional budget cuts. The backlog came down sharply from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2012, a period in which the average wait time for a disability decision fell from more than 500 days to 350 days, the first time the wait had been less than a year since 2003.


Since 2012, wait times have again climbed steeply, as a surge of applicants during the recession combined with an inability to hire disability judges and support staff. The average wait time is back up to 626 days. Having to wait an average of more than a year and eight months to receive a decision is an outrageous burden on people who may be unable to work and struggling with what could be terminal illness.

A contributing factor in Social Security’s chronic budget squeeze could well be the absence of an official boss. There hasn’t been a commissioner in place for more than four years. Since the departure of Michael Astrue in January 2013, the agency has been led by acting commissioners Carolyn Colvin and Nancy Berryhill, neither of whom has had the political heft to carry the agency’s case to Capitol Hill. The Obama administration’s nomination of Colvin, a long-term Social Security official, to the job was derailed on transparently political grounds by Senate Republicans in 2014. But Obama never put up another candidate; Trump’s failure to name a replacement just continues this record of neglect.

A picture of the agency’s declining voice in Congress can be gleaned by the evolution of its budget request just over the last two years. Colvin reported a year ago that “our current state of service remains fragile.” She observed that the agency’s budget for fiscal 2016 did “not allow us to sustain our recent gains,” as it “does not cover all inflationary growth in our fixed costs.” She requested a staff increase of nearly 3,000 people. She didn’t get them.

Berryhill, the current acting commissioner, cast her budget request for fiscal 2018 in cheerier terms, consistent with the Trump administration’s habit of grinning its way past disasters. “The fiscal year (FY) 2018 President’s Budget will allow us to focus on our core mission,” Berryhill said. She described that mission as including reduction in the disability backlog, reducing “improper payments” and “continuing to develop a strong workforce.” None of those goals is consistent with a reduction in the administrative budget, which hasn’t been known for padding.


Berryhill is a 40-year veteran of the agency, but she seems to be marching to her bosses’ drumrolls. It’s hard to see how one can “develop a strong workforce” while cutting that workforce by the equivalent of about 3,000 people, or 4%, in a year. Berryhill’s goal of speeding up disability rulings isn’t going to be helped by the reduction of 1,000 disability determination workers on her staff, a cut of nearly 7% in that office alone.

Budgeting like this serves only one purpose: to make Social Security seem less relevant to today’s workers. The fact is, it’s never been more relevant, or more needed. But who will speak up for the program when its own voice is muffled?

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