Name That Commissioner

By Tom Margenau

November 20, 2019 8 min read

I am going to give you a series of names. I would give any reader a hundred bucks if he or she could tell me who these people are and what they all have in common. Here are the names: Stanford Ross. William Driver. John Svahn. Martha McSteen. Dorcas Hardy. Gwendolyn King. Shirley Chater. Kenneth Apfel. Michael Astrue.

So, who are they? They are nine of the past 29 commissioners of Social Security. The commissioner of Social Security is the top spot within the Social Security Administration. He or she is responsible for running one of the largest agencies in the federal government. This includes maintaining Social Security numbers and earnings records for nearly every working American and paying retirement, disability and survivor benefits to about 62 million people every month.

Yet, almost no one knows who these people are. Most folks can probably name the FBI director or the head of the CIA. But SSA is one of the many federal agencies whose top dog might as well be named Underdog. Who heads the Veterans Administration? Who is the commissioner of the IRS? Who runs the Federal Highway Administration? How about the Bureau of Labor Statistics? The heads of these and so many other federal agencies are almost always nameless political appointees. And therein lies a story I'd like to tell.

For part of my career with the SSA, I worked for several Social Security commissioners. Usually in the role of a speechwriter. Sometimes as an agency press officer (well, OK, deputy press officer). By no means was I a major player on any commissioner's staff. But, as I used to say, "At least I was in the room." In other words, if the commissioner had a meeting with his or her top staff, I might be sitting in a chair in the corner — usually taking notes.

So I got to know a lot about the inner workings of the agency. I learned what the head of a big agency like the SSA really does. One of the commissioners I worked for (I won't name names) was President Ronald Reagan's pick to head Social Security. And one time, soon after she was appointed, she told me that Reagan told her this: "You really have only one job. Make sure those damn checks go out on time every month!"

But let's be honest about that. The issuance of Social Security checks is pretty institutionalized. It's built into the nature of the bureaucracy. Social Security checks have gone out on time every month for about 80 years now. Donald Duck could be the commissioner of Social Security, and the checks still would go out like clockwork each month. After all, commissioners come and go. It's the dedicated civil servants who have been with the agency for decades who really keep the place humming along and make sure those checks always go out in a timely manner.

So what the commissioner really does — what the head of any large organization really does — is set the tone for how services will be provided and how staff will be allocated to provide those services. And he or she also sets goals. And for so many years, one of the top goals of every commissioner who ran the SSA, whether appointed by a Democratic or Republican president, was to improve the processing of Social Security disability claims.

And why was that? Because a disability program is a mess to run. Think about it. What do you have to do to get retirement benefits? You prove you're old enough, you sign a couple of forms, and the checks start rolling in. Same thing for survivors benefits. You show the SSA a death certificate, fill out a form or two, and your claim is complete. But the disability program is a whole other kettle of fish. And a big, stinky kettle it is! Retirement and survivors benefits are very objective. But disability is VERY subjective. Consider this: How disabled must a person be to qualify for disability benefits? People have been struggling to answer that question for 63 years now. (The Social Security disability program began in 1956.)

To prove how subjective disability is, all you have to do is look at the SSA's appeals workload. There are a handful of people who appeal a retirement or survivor claim, but there are tens of thousands of pending appeals of disability claims. An entire cottage industry of lawyers and disability consultants has sprung up to help people get a disability claim approved.

But the SSA's newest commissioner might be setting a different tone, with more emphasis on core services. Let's talk about that. His name is Andrew Saul. President Donald Trump appointed him several months ago.

Before I go on, I must make a point. A long time ago, a chief of staff for one of the Social Security commissioners told me this: "Tom, when a Democrat is president, you will get a good commissioner of Social Security. When a Republican is president, you will get an ineffective commissioner of Social Security." This seemingly biased analysis carried a bit of weight with me because the chief of staff who told me this was a Republican political appointee!

His reasoning went like this. For years, Social Security has been known as a favorite of the Democratic Party. So if a Democrat is president, and you are a potential Democratic political appointee, you would be pleased and honored to be named the commissioner of Social Security. Some of the best and brightest people available got the job. On the other hand, if a Republican is president, and you are a potential Republican political appointee, almost the last job you want is to be the head of Social Security. More desirable jobs were filled by the top people, and SSA got someone from near the bottom of the Republican political appointee barrel. (And again, remember, these sentiments were those of a Republican politico.)

Because of that, I was VERY skeptical when I heard that Trump nominated Andrew Saul as head of the SSA. Plus, this guy comes into the job with some political baggage. Many Democrats opposed his appointment because he was previously associated with some right-wing groups that advocated cuts in Social Security benefits.

Despite all that, I must admit I was impressed with some of his initial actions as the SSA commissioner. I don't have the space to cover them here. But I encourage my readers to go to the SSA official website. On the home page, you will see an "open letter to the public from Commissioner Saul." Take a few minutes to read it. It sounds to me like he is going to concentrate on meaningful things like cutting wait times at the SSA's 800 number and improving service at local Social Security offices.

So read his letter, and see what you think. Gosh, I sure hope he means what he says and doesn't turn into just another in the long line of bottom-of-the-barrel, ineffective Republican political appointees to Social Security.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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