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|
|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.