Government Shut Down: A Threat To Social Security?

Based on what happened last time in 1996, it's not very clear. The U.S. Social Security Administration maintained a few employees to administer benefits, but after a while it became difficult to process new applicants or deal with problems.

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And as we just heard, President Obama has warned of the possibility that if the government shuts down, people might not receive their Social Security payments.

NPR's David Welna looks into whether those checks would or would not be in the mail.

DAVID WELNA: What President Obama said last week about a shutdown's impact on Social Security benefits did sound ominous.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is not an abstraction. You know, people don't get their Social Security checks.

WELNA: Asked today about the president' assertion, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president was pointing out what Carney called the potential consequences of a government shutdown for those on Social Security.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (Press Secretary, White House): Some recipients, new retirees, new applicants might not receive their checks. If retirees have questions about their checks, if they didn't get their check in the mail, if they had a change of address, all those things could prevent them from getting their checks.

Dr. ANDREW BIGGS (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): It seems almost impossible to believe that Social Security checks won't go out.

WELNA: That's Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank. Biggs was deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration during the George W. Bush presidency. Because what's paid out in Social Security benefits comes from payroll taxes, not congressional appropriations, Biggs says that money won't be affected by a shutdown, even though the jobs of some Social Security employees could be.

Dr. BIGGS: So I am 100 percent confident the checks will go out. But you could see in a government shutdown that people would have a harder time applying for benefits or doing other things that - where they would interact with the Social Security Administration's offices.

WELNA: On its website, the Social Security Administration says nothing about a possible shutdown. And there was no response by the agency to repeated requests for comment about this story. But an online ad by the agency, starring actress Patty Duke - playing two roles, as Patty and Cathy - does encourage people to, quote, "Retire online."

(Soundbite of Social Security Administration ad)

Ms. PATTY DUKE (Actress): (as Patty) Who knew it would be this much work when Richard and I decided to retire?

Ms DUKE: (as Cathy) Well, what are you going to do first?

Ms DUKE: (as Patty) Or heading down to Brooklyn Heights and start in on that Social Security paperwork.

Ms DUKE: (as Cathy) Why would you do that?

Ms DUKE: (as Patty) What do you mean?

Ms DUKE: (as Cathy) Well, it's so much easier just to log on to socialsecurity.gov and file online.

WELNA: But filing online and sending out computerized checks still requires at least some people actually working at Social Security. So do many other tasks, as became clear during the last shutdown 15 years ago.

Mr. JOHN KOSKINEN (Former Deputy Director, Office of Management and Budget, Social Security Administration): The last time around, actually as the deputy director for management, I coordinated the shutdown.

WELNA: That's John Koskinen who ran that shutdown from the Clinton White House Budget Office. Koskinen says virtually all Social Security employees were initially put on furlough, and then, they weren't.

Mr. KOSKINEN: They were all shut down for, give or take, a little about a week. And then as we continued every day to review the situation, the determination was made that the checks were getting ready to go. If we didn't send the checks out that that would create an emergency, definition as we saw it at the time. And so the workers were brought back even though the shutdown continued.

WELNA: The Social Security checks did get sent out during that shutdown. But Witold Skwierczynski, who heads the union representing Social Security employees, says a meeting today that he had with the Social Security administrators did little to clear up uncertainty about what might happen should there be another shutdown.

Mr. WITOLD SKWIERCZYNSKI: I'm not sure what they're going to do, and apparently, they don't know what they're going to do, because they asked for a postponement of the briefing till Monday, because they haven't -that the commissioner hasn't indicated what he's going to do regarding the essential employee issues. And it may be really a decision of the president, rather than him.

WELNA: And that's because by law, no agencies can operate without money appropriated by Congress, unless the executive branch designates their continued operations to be an emergency - which may well be the case when it comes to Social Security checks.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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