Social Security official’s term expires next week

Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

This story has been updated.

The head of the Social Security Administration could be out in less than two weeks, and it’s not clear yet who will replace him.

President Obama has not nominated a successor to Michael Astrue, a George W. Bush appointee whose six-year term expires on Jan. 19. It’s possible an announcement could come as early as this week, according to a Capitol Hill source, since the position requires Senate confirmation. SSA’s Deputy Commissioner Carolyn Colvin could be named acting head of the agency before Obama makes a permanent nomination; her term of deputy also expires on Jan. 19.

“Commissioner Astrue remains on the job and has not submitted his resignation to President Obama,” said Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for SSA.

Other names circulating as possible replacements to Astrue include Nancy Altman, James Roosevelt Jr., and former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. Altman is chairman of the nonprofit Pension Rights Center’s board of directors and has spent most of her career studying, teaching and writing about Social Security and pension issues; James Roosevelt Jr. -- the grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the late president who helped create Social Security in the 1930s -- is president and chief executive officer of Tufts Health Plan. Roosevelt also served on Obama’s 2008 transition team as a Social Security adviser and is a former associate commissioner at the agency. Pomeroy was chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security when he served in the House.

The Association of Administrative Law Judges, which represents 1,400 judges who handle Social Security disability claims, on Tuesday endorsed Altman for the top job at SSA. “During this time of tight budgets and after the poor management of the Astrue years, the nation needs an individual who can serve both as a strong voice for Social Security and as a competent manager,” said Randall Frye, the group’s president, in a statement. Frye said during a Tuesday interview with Government Executive that Astrue’s focus on expediting disability cases through the system has not taken into account the time judges need to properly review and make decisions on cases, or the lack of staff on hand. “Too many cases are being presented to judges without time to adjudicate,” Frye said.

Astrue has been under pressure from Congress during his tenure to eliminate the backlog on hearings, despite a steadily dwindling budget and an agency-wide hiring freeze, which is still in place. SSA has made progress in decreasing the backlog while keeping pace with an increasing number of new disability and retirement claims. Still, a lack of resources and budget woes continue to plague the agency, which employs more than 60,000 employees nationwide and is headquartered in Baltimore. In October, SSA announced it was scaling back work hours in its field offices, and the agency offered thousands of eligible employees voluntary early retirement in August.

SSA was ranked number six out of 19 large agencies included in the 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey. The annual survey, based on feedback from federal employees, is conducted by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

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