Where’s the Annual Social Security Report?

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has announced his intention to sue President Obama for “failure to faithfully follow the nation’s laws” by taking extra-legal executive actions in some areas and failing to execute the laws in other areas such as immigration, judicial appointments, health care, foreign affairs, and so on.

One area where he’s failing to execute the law is Social Security. For instance, the President and his leadership have repeatedly failed to publish on time the Annual Report of the Social Security Trustees, the yearly description of the program’s finances and future outlook. The legal deadline for its publication is April 1—see section 201 (c)(2) of the Social Security Act. We’re now more than three months past that deadline and there’s no indication that it will appear soon.

Social Security’s ex-officio trustees include the secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services, and the (currently acting) commissioner of the program. There are also two public trustees, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. (The two public trustees may not be from the same political party.)

It’s well known that Social Security benefits comprise the largest share of income for a majority of retirees—incomes that they could not do without. So the Trustees’ Report is a crucial document. The information it contains is important to millions of stakeholders—retirees, disability beneficiaries and applicants, financial planners, workers nearing retirement, and others.

Policymakers need to know this information so they can make timely decisions intended to ensure that the program remains on a sound financial footing. For example, the 2013 Report (which didn’t appear until the end of May last year) estimated that the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund will be exhausted and the program will be unable to pay full benefits at some point in 2016. Not much time remains for lawmakers to consider and enact sensible reforms to DI—and the clock is ticking.

No doubt, there could be valid reasons for publication delays. New information about the program’s financial status may not become available in a timely manner, and the development of new estimates using updated technical methods may take longer than anticipated. However, there are professional cadres of actuaries and economists dedicated to completing this task. They should, more often than not, anticipate such issues, and instances of publication delay should be the exception rather than the rule.

The table below notes the report’s publication dates during the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama (to date) presidencies. It shows that the Obama administration has always been consistently and exceptionally late in issuing the report. In only one of the last six instances has Obama’s designees managed to get the report out within one month after the statutory deadline. In contrast, George W. Bush’s administration released five of its eight annual reports on time and always released the report within a month of the deadline; Bill Clinton released three of his eight reports on time and usually managed to issue the report within a month of the deadline. President Obama’s consistently tardy publication record is difficult to attribute to extenuating circumstances.

Annual Report of the Social Security Trustees: 
Publication Date History
Year Publication: Day and Date Timely/Late President
2014 ? Late Barack Obama
2013 Friday, May 31, 2013 Late Barack Obama
2012 Monday, April 23, 2012 Late* Barack Obama
2011 Friday, May 13, 2011 Late Barack Obama
2010 Thursday, August 05, 2010 Late Barack Obama
2009 Tuesday, May 12, 2009 Late Barack Obama
2008 Tuesday, March 25, 2008 Timely George W. Bush
2007 Monday, April 23, 2007 Late* George W. Bush
2006 Monday, May 01, 2006 Late* George W. Bush
2005 Wednesday, March 23, 2005 Timely George W. Bush
2004 Tuesday, March 23, 2004 Timely George W. Bush
2003 Monday, March 17, 2003 Timely George W. Bush
2002 Tuesday, April 09, 2002 Late* George W. Bush
2001 Monday, March 19, 2001 Timely George W. Bush
2000 Thursday, March 30, 2000 Timely Bill Clinton
1999 Tuesday, March 30, 1999 Timely Bill Clinton
1998 Tuesday, April 28, 1998 Late* Bill Clinton
1997 Thursday, April 24, 1997 Late* Bill Clinton
1996 Wednesday, June 05, 1996 Late Bill Clinton
1995 Monday, April 03, 1995** Timely Bill Clinton
1994 Monday, April 11, 1994 Late* Bill Clinton
1993 Wednesday, April 06, 1993 Late* Bill Clinton
* Report published within 1 month after the legal deadline of   April 1st. 
**April 1st was a Saturday.

There are other instances of slippage by the Social Security Administration in executing the program’s laws faithfully. For instance, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and James Lankford (R-Okla.), senior members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, recently issued a stern letter to Social Security’s acting commissioner, Caroline Colvin, charging the agency with consistently failing to “confront the problems of rapidly rising disability rolls” and “abdicating its responsibility to protect the truly disabled and taxpayers from out-of-control ALJs (Administrative Law Judges) who refuse to follow the law.” This letter cites the report by the committee entitled, “Systemic Waste and Abuse at the Social Security Administration: How Rubber-Stamping Disability Judges Cost Hundreds of Billions of Taxpayer Dollars.

Such failures are symptomatic of a failing presidency. Multiply the likelihood of poor compliance with the law across all government departments—you can be the judge on whether that’s happening—and President Obama’s historic low poll ratings (currently in the low 40s) seem surprisingly high. It brings to mind an important sound-bite from the 2008 presidential campaign: Hillary Clinton’s question about who would be more competent to answer a 3 AM phone call on a policy emergency. The White House phones must be ringing constantly, like church-bells.

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