Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday that she is working “very closely” with Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, on an omnibus spending bill that the lawmakers hope to introduce during the week of Dec. 8.
Speaking to reporters after a forum on the future of Social Security held on Capitol Hill by Social Security Works and the American Federation of Government Employees, Mikulski said she and Rogers are hammering out the “money” agreements and will move next week to working on “riders” to the bill.
Mikulski said she was “excited” by the event’s title, “Strengthen Social Security, Don’t Cut It,” and that she is “fighting mad, fired up and I’m ready to go” to “fight against the coming tide of budget cutters” and to tell the story of why Social Security “continues to be the most important part of our [Americans’] social safety net.”
Social Security, she said, “must always be a reliable …and undeniable benefit” for the American people, adding that it needs to be “strengthened” and “even reformed.”
Mikulski also said that lawmakers need to confirm Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn Colvin to be commissioner “before” the new Congress starts on Jan. 3.
Social Security was funded at $11.046 billion in FY2013 post-sequester.
Mikulski fought for a $640 million increase over FY13 post-sequester levels at $11.69 billion in the FY2014 omnibus bill. In the FY2015 Labor-HHS Senate bill, Social Security is funded at $11.92 billion–a $224 million increase over the FY14 omnibus bill.
Colvin said Tuesday that the SSA has “no plans to close offices in 2015, because we expect at least a level budget,” and that while she is “committed to a field structure,” she wants Social Security recipients to have a “smorgasbord of services.”
Mikulski had included in the Senate’s Labor-HHS bill language that says her committee “remains concerned” about the Social Security Administration’s “lack of transparency in its policies and procedures for proposing to close field offices.” The committee directed SSA to develop a process that would provide an opportunity for community input.
The bill says that the committee “strongly encourages” the Social Security Administration “to continue to make these documents readily available at field offices until there is more evidence or better assurances that individuals will not be adversely impacted by any changes.”
Mikulski also co-sponsored the Improving Access to Social Security Services Act, S. 2742, which was introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The bill also addresses field office closures.
According to a recent report by the Senate Special Committee on Aging, over the past five years, the SSA has been forced to shutter 64 field offices due to budget constraints, which the committee says is the largest five-year decline in the number of field offices in the agency’s 79-year history.
Mikulski said Tuesday that Social Security customers “need a face-to-face contact,” noting potential plans afoot that would eliminate certain paper documents that are currently available at field offices and make them accessible only online.
She told reporters after her remarks that the upcoming GOP controlled-Congress will attempt to “shrink the size of federal government,” and therefore attempt to reduce the number of Social Security field offices further by reducing “federal expenditures.” However, she said, the GOP-controlled Congress will face “strong resistance from the American people, and I will resist it. People need to tell their story to [the] Social Security [offices] anecdotally; they need to be listened to.”
Indeed, the Strengthen Social Security Coalition released survey results the same day that found that the majority of American voters want to be able to call or visit a local Social Security field office for various reasons.
For instance, in the poll of 1,207 registered voters, conducted from Nov. 14 to 16, 57% of those polled said they want to be able to call or visit a local Social Security office to request a new Social Security card, while 59% said they want to either call or visit an office to get information when they are one to two years away from retirement.
What’s more, 61% of those polled said they’d want to visit or call a local office when it’s time to apply for retirement benefits, while 86% of those polled said they want more or the same number of local field offices in the future.