Budget proposal could force a 10-day furlough at SSA


October 20, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

One of the Baltimore region's largest employers - and administrators of the federal government's biggest program - has said it might need to furlough employees for 10 days without pay next year under a budget proposal awaiting a vote in the U.S. Senate.

The Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration has, in the past year, resorted to cutbacks in service and personnel that some employees say have ruined morale at the 64,000-person agency.

For every three workers that leave the agency, one is being replaced, and new checks for fraud and mistakes in disability payments, a process that the agency says saves the government $10 for every $1 spent, have been stopped.

If Senate and House negotiators settle on the Senate's proposal - $400 million less than President Bush requested - Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart has warned, 1,300 field offices would close for 10 days, probably not consecutive, and the agency would impose a hiring freeze and cut overtime.

The House has passed a budget that includes $201 million less than the president's request, and the issue is likely to be sorted out in negotiations between the two chambers this year.

Ron Haskins, a former senior Republican staff member for the House Ways and Means Committee and former senior adviser to the president on welfare policy, called Barnhart's responses to congressional cuts "quite clever."

Furloughs, he said, "hit [members of Congress] where they live, right in their own district" - a threat that may be necessary for Barnhart to get what she believes she needs.

"Congress is intent on producing savings," Haskins said. "Republicans are aware of the budget problems and that their record on keeping spending down is not good."

But anything that worsens service delivery at the Social Security Administration - such as adding to the 6,400 people in the Baltimore region waiting for an outcome of appeals after the agency denied their disability claims - also would create floods of phone calls to congressional offices.

"Looking back over the last five years, if we had received the President's budget request and not been reduced for the last five years, we would not have the backlogs we have today," said Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for the agency.

In Barnhart's July letter to U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that the next round of budget cuts would result in "delays in the public's ability to file for retirement or disability benefits, apply for replacement Social Security cards, reach a representative on our 1-800 number or obtain decisions on pending disability claims and appeals."

Chris Edwards, a budget and tax expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, argued that discretionary spending at the agency - money not paid to beneficiaries - increased from $3.4 billion in fiscal year 2001 to an estimated $4.6 billion in fiscal year 2006.

Edwards also said the agency's work force has remained relatively steady during that time.

"In the private sector, companies are expected to become more and more efficient as production rises," Edwards said. "I don't see why the same shouldn't be expected of the Social Security Administration."

Raises for retirees

Most federal retirees - for the third year in a row -will get a larger raise than their working counterparts.

Retirees under the older Civil Service Retirement System can expect a 3.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment in their pensions thanks to a rise in the cost of some goods and services this year. Retirees under the newer Federal Employees Retirement System and who are 62 years or older can expect a 2.3 percent increase.

The newer system offers a smaller pension in exchange for other perks, such as a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

Meanwhile, most soldiers will get a 2.2 percent raise. Although Congress has yet to set federal workers' raise, civil servants should expect the same jump, given Congress' preference for pay parity for members of the military and civilians.

The reason for retirees' recent success is inflation. The pension increases are automatic and not subject to congressional negotiations.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885.

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