By Steve Kofahl
Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin and Chief Strategic Officer Ruby Burrell recently warned the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) that we will continue to be constrained by tight budgets when the new fiscal year begins on October 1, 2013. There are many different scenarios, and things are sure to change after Congress returns from the August recess, but this is what the landscape looks like right now based on what we have learned from AFGE meetings with Agency leaders, with our coalition partners like Social Security Works, and with Congressional representatives and staff.
A government shutdown is possible if Congress fails to authorize spending after September 30, or fails to raise the debt ceiling later in the Fall, but we don’t believe that is likely to happen.
The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget would be reduced by 18%-22% if the House Appropriations Committee adopts the House Labor-HHS-Education Bill (which includes administrative funding for SSA) and follows the guidelines set forth in the House-passed Budget, if the Senate then agrees, and if the President then signs it into law. We also believe that it is an unlikely scenario, but if it happens SSA would face not just massive furloughs, but almost certainly significant Reductions-In-Force (layoffs). The administrative budget has been cut nearly 7% since Fiscal Year 2010, and that resulted in a virtual hiring freeze, sharply reduced office hours, dozens of office closures, and elimination of contact stations where employees served those in remote areas who could not visit an office. The devastation that would result from an 18%-22% cut is almost unimaginable.
The Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Committee Bill would provide a 4.7% increase above this year’s levels if passed by the Senate and the House, and signed by the President. AFGE is supporting this alternative. Unfortunately, in our meetings with Ms. Colvin, she has consistently talked about prospects for an additional cut of 8% – 22% from current funding levels, not the possibility of an increase, which leads us to believe that SSA is not fighting hard for this option.
Given the gridlock in Washington, D.C., many people expect that there will be no appropriations for SSA, or a budget passed at all, before the end of the current Fiscal Year, and that we will once again be limping along under a Continuing Resolution (CR). A CR at current levels would be a real cut, because even in a period of low inflation, many items become more costly as time goes on. A CR at the sequestration levels established in the Budget Control Act of 2011 would represent a cut of about 8 – 10% for SSA, and furloughs would be possible.
AFGE has repeatedly made a number of recommendations to SSA that would save significant amounts of money without gutting service, but so far they have been rejected out of hand. We asked SSA to close Area Director Offices, consolidate Regional Offices, reduce the spending on contracts that has been increasing rapidly in recent years, and sponsor legislation that would take the 2/3 of our administrative funding that comes from Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds “off budget” and out from under caps on discretionary spending. We also are pressing for a responsible re-examination of Internet self-service, in place of the reckless approach that has led to substantial overpayments and underpayments, and widespread fraud and theft of benefits.
AFGE will continue to oppose the closure of field offices (SSA’s preferred method of cutting costs), and to promote an approach to service delivery that keeps our employees involved in providing the assistance that our clients need, deserve, and in most cases have paid for throughout their working lives. We will keep you posted about future developments, and let you know what you can do to help.
Steve Kofahl is President of AFGE 3937 and a member of PSARA’s Executive Board.