SSA bracing for furlough as funding is delayed

FEDERAL WORKERS

December 15, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

Federal workers

Melissa Harris

SSA bracing for furlough as Congress delays funding

The Social Security Administration may still have to close offices nationwide for several days next year after the Republican-led Congress failed to act on nine of the 11 spending bills for 2007 and incoming Democratic leaders announced that they would hold spending at current levels until Oct. 1.

Agency spokesman Mark Lassiter said this week that extending 2006 spending levels through the entire 2007 fiscal year would "leave the agency open for the furlough."

When Congress returns in January, Lassiter said, one way to avoid sending workers home without pay would be to set Social Security spending at $9.29 billion, the amount approved by a House subcommittee for 2007 and $146 million more than what the agency is operating with now.

Outgoing Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart said in an interview last week that once Congress dips below that figure, "there's no place left to give."

Barnhart has been warning of a potential furlough since September, which she characterized as the culmination of Congress allotting the agency less than the president requested for five straight years.

"Let me assure you, there is no strategy here," said Barnhart, a former congressional staffer. "As the person who's responsible for a program that delivers benefits to 48 million people, I think it's my responsibility to make sure Congress understands the consequences of its planned actions. If I had waited until after Congress signed off on appropriations bills and said, `Gee, that's not enough money. We need to do a furlough.' I think they'd be a little annoyed with me."

Barnhart said that if Congress had supported the president's requests, people applying for disability benefits and challenging denials would not be faced with the long delays they are experiencing now.

Lassiter said Wednesday that the agency has instituted a hiring freeze until at least Feb. 15, almost a month after Barnhart's term expires. The agency had been hiring one employee for every three who left.

"The point is, there's a very direct correlation between service and getting the president's request and not getting the president's request," Barnhart said.

Until late last week, when the spending bills failed to get off the Senate floor, the agency's lobbying efforts had been gaining ground with 54 senators, including 12 Republicans, sending a letter to the chamber's leadership calling for enough money to avoid service disruptions.

"On the philosophical level, I certainly feel the agency is enjoying a victory, but on the practical side we're still piling on," Barnhart said. "We could absorb the House's proposal, but it's not going to be an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination."

Richard Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said that agency budget officials estimate that for every $20 million the agency loses from the House's 2007 budget proposal, offices would shut down for one day.

"So if we stick with our current funding level, we're looking at a seven- or eight-day furlough," Warsinskey said. "It's not looking good."

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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