Bye-Bye Barnhart

SSA commissioner grudgingly leaves behind the agency she loves.

SSA commissioner grudgingly leaves behind the agency she loves.

Jo Anne Barnhart cried in her office the week before her term as commissioner of the Social Security Administration timed out in late January. Why the emotion? It was the thought of leaving the agency's 65,000 employees, she says. "This agency is an amazing place," Barnhart said, as the tears came. "There's no way to really express what the people in this agency are like."

Her attachment is unusual. The Tennessee native is the first commissioner to serve a full six-year term since the 1960s. The previous four commissioners each served about three years apiece; the two before that lasted only about a year each. Barnhart stuck it out and used her longer tenure for some major backroom cleanup.

President Bush very publicly targeted a Social Security overhaul as a major domestic initiative after gaining his "political capital" in the 2004 presidential win. He pushed for private accounts, among other changes, which failed to gain real traction in Congress but certainly succeeded in igniting controversy.

But Barnhart-who is no stranger to the political world, with stints in the office of Sen. William Roth, R-Del., and as minority staff director for the then-Senate Governmental Affairs Committee-opted out of the hullabaloo surrounding Bush's bid to overhaul Social Security. "It's an independent agency," Barnhart says. "The whole idea of creating the independent agency was to take the politics out of Social Security."

Instead, she turned her to eye to reforming the agency's disability process. The plight of people who are made to wait months or years before receiving their first disability payments garnered far less attention than the political battle over Social Security solvency. But it gained the attention of the one who mattered.

Barnhart's first move was to convert disability records from paper to an electronic format. It was a huge task. Social Security is now the largest depository of medical records in the world; Barnhart estimates about 100 million documents are on file. Nebraska became the last state to go electronic just weeks before Barnhart left the agency.

David Traver, a Wisconsin lawyer who specializes in Social Security disability claims, says he applauds Barnhart's efforts but hasn't seen huge improvement on the ground. "It's kind of like steering the Titanic," he says. "It's a very, very large old ship with a very small rudder. I think she has been somewhat successful, but I haven't seen any improvement across the board."

Barnhart didn't get the nod for a second tour at SSA, so she won't be able to put her backroom fixes into action. Bush tapped Massachusetts biotechnology executive and former Health and Human Services general counsel Michael Astrue instead. Barnhart has not yet announced any plans for the future. At Astrue's confirmation hearing Jan. 24, senators from both parties lavished praise on the outgoing commissioner. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Barnhart "did an excellent job" and "accomplished a great deal."

Barnhart's attachment to her employees was not always reciprocated, especially when it came to unions. Witold Skwierczynski, president of the Social Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, calls Barnhart the worst commissioner the agency ever had. Skwierczynski says she refused to even meet with labor leaders for the last four years.

From a manager's perspective, Barnhart's dealings with unions cut down on litigation and helped the agency, says Rick Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations. "We had a contract that made it hard for [managers] to do things," Warsinskey says. "She really worked to get a [better] contract for us."

But Baucus told Astrue he could play nicer with employee unions than Barnhart did. "If somebody's giving you a hard time, you've got to just deal with it," Baucus said. "You don't dish it back. It just doesn't work."

Tussles with the unions don't seem to have colored Barnhart's view: "I just think it's real important for future leaders to understand the enormous talent and commitment that rests in this agency."

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