"Scandal" Cited By GOP Senators Who Blocked New Social Security Chief Was A Bush White House Project

Republican senators are upset about delays and cost overruns on a new computer system at the Social Security Administration—so upset, they have blocked President Obama’s nominee for commissioner. The only the trouble is, the new computer system was planned and ordered up by the prior commissioner—a George W. Bush appointee.

The 11 Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee were in high dudgeon two weeks ago when they released a letter to Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner of Social Security and President Obama’s nominee for a six-year slot as commissioner, regarding the troubled implementation of a new computer system for processing disability benefit claims:

"We have received information from whistleblowers that the ongoing investigation [of the computer system] has centered around the activities of certain members of your immediate office, including several high-level agency officials. Therefore, it is essential to address your role with respect to this inquiry before each of us can make an informed decision on how to vote for your nomination once it reaches the full Senate for consideration."

A lot of this is simply hyperventilating. It’s not clear that the GOP senators “received information from whistleblowers,” as they claim. What happened for sure was that an interim report from the Social Security Administration’s inspector general said that officials at the SSA may have misled Congress about aspects of the $300 million computer system. The report stems from an investigation that Colvin herself ordered after she took over from Astrue early last year. And when the senators point their fingers at “ the activities of certain members of your immediate office” in their letter, they would be referring to officials who were in place under Astrue as well. Yet the tone of their letter suggests, misleadingly, that Colvin herself may be under suspicion.

We’ll see what the investigation turns up, but this sounds like another Republican attempt to gin up an Obama-administration scandal—bureaucratic mismanagement, lying to Congress—where none exists. Only this particular mess had its origins with a Bush-appointed agency leadership, and it was a union that represents SSA employees—hardly a Republican stronghold—that first asked hard questions about their computer plans.

That was in 2009, when Obama first entered office. Astrue was barely on speaking terms with the American Federation of Government Employees’ National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, which was warning about cuts in Social Security field offices that the commissioner had been pursuing and the dangers they posed to people receiving or applying for benefits. The union was pressing the new administration to replace Astrue; Obama, true to his preference to work with Republicans rather than anyone in his own party who could vaguely be defined as “left” or “labor,” ignored the advice.

At the same time, the SSA stood to receive a long-needed boost in its funding as part of the administration’s economic stimulus package. Astrue wanted to use the money to build an entirely new computer center to cope with rising benefits applications, particularly for disability. The union questioned whether the new system was really needed, arguing the money would be more effectively spent by hiring new staff and improving the SSA’s telephone customer service facility. Astrue got his way—not surprisingly, given bipartisan Washington’s near-religious belief that there is no function that cannot be improved by digitalizing it, even if much of the clientele consists of elderly people who are not part of the wired economy.

Now, it seems, the union’s worries are proving correct, yet it’s Republican lawmakers who are scrambling to make political hay out of the computer-system debacle. Set up to be the sacrificial lamb is Colvin, even though she has done nothing in her short, interim tenure to suggest she doesn’t generally buy into the push for digitalization and indeed has done nothing to halt the closing of Social Security field offices. Which goes to show, again, that when it comes to GOP ideologues in Congress, there’s just no pleasing these people—a hard lesson that Democrats in Washington consistently fail to learn.

It’s worth noting that Colvin encountered no opposition from Republicans when she appeared before the Finance Committee in July; if the GOP are to carry out their threat to block her nomination, it will have to be before a vote by the full Senate. But they may have a gut-level reason to jump on any excuse to hold her up. If confirmed, Colvin would be the first Social Security commissioner in over 40 years who actually has had a lengthy career within agency itself. She joined the SSA out of college as a clerk in 1963 and has spent her whole career there, reaching the deputy commissioner level in 1996.

It’s been an article of faith for Republicans from the early days of the Reagan administration that the heads of agencies like the SSA must not come from within the agency itself. If at all possible, they must be strongly conservative critics who are committed to “reforming” it by shrinking it and pushing back against its unionized workforce. The less experience they have with the day-to-day running of a big, complex agency like the SSA, the better. Astrue fit that bill. Colvin, by contrast, represents the so-called “permanent government” Republicans are determined to break. That they were ready to exploit any chink in her armor, however unfair, should have been foreseeable.

Certainly the public deserves answers about the botched computer system. The SSA has a history of such failures stretching back more than 30 years, through administrations of both parties. But Democrats should do everything they can to make sure the inquiry goes in the right direction: toward the agency leadership that actually ordered and implemented the new system. That should start with a subpoena to Michael Astrue. But, judging from remarks by Sen. Ron Wyden, Finance Committee chair—“I think all senators will want to see [Colvin's] responses before acting on that nomination”—that doesn’t seem to be the direction they want to pursue. Once again, it seems, they are afraid to challenge their Republican colleagues, possibly throwing a qualified nominee to the wolves in the process.

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