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Oral History of the Board[1]

Voices from the Senate

The following excerpt was taken from a speech given by Webster Phillips of SSA at the request of Senator Moynihan of New York on August 5, 1994, the day the Senate passed the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994 (H.R. 4277), which established SSA as an independent agency and simultaneously created the 7-member bipartisan Social Security Advisory Board.

Webster Phillips, SSA Employee – August 5, 1994.

“With the conference report before us today, we increase the stature of the Social Security Administration, strengthen its leadership and establish a bipartisan Advisory Board.  These measures will strengthen the administration of Social Security and we confidently believe increase public confidence in the program.”

 

Voices from the House of Representatives

The following excerpts were taken from speeches given by members of the House of Representatives on August 11, 1994, the day the House passed the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994 (H.R. 4277).

Bill Archer, Former Representative from Texas’s 7th District (1971 – 2000) – August 11, 1994.

“I believe that the seven-member bipartisan Advisory Board will play a critical role making Social Security less political and in improving the public’s confidence in the Social Security system.

This Board will be independent of the Social Security Administration and Government in general.  It will be made up of individuals who share knowledge of the Social Security System as well as a strong desire to restore it to its former status as a premier public service agency which enjoyed the public’s respect and confidence.

One of the most important jobs the Board will have is to increase the public’s understanding of the Social Security System.  I hope that as a result of the Board’s efforts the average citizen will have more confidence in the Social Security System, and will become more aware of the need to plan and save overall.

The bipartisan, nongovernmental Advisory Board will play a vital role in both protecting the public’s interest in Social Security and providing the public truthful information about their stake in the system.”

James Bunning, Former Representative from Kentucky’s 4th District (1987-1999) and Former Senator from Kentucky (1999-2011) – August 11, 1994.

 “I am particularly pleased that the conferees chose to go along with this form of leadership for Social Security that I specified in my bill on the subject—a single administrator backed by a 7-member Board.

By granting Social Security its independence and backing it up with this well-balanced management structure, we will provide the stability and the nonpartisan credibility we need to restore the confidence of the American people that Social Security will indeed be there when they need it.”

W. Bill Young, Representative from Florida’s 13th District, Formerly representing Florida’s 6th, 8th, and 10th Districts in different Congresses (1971-2013) – August 11, 1994.

 “This Board, as the voice for the almost 40 million Americans who receive Social Security benefits, would ensure that the trust funds remain sound and untouched, that payments and cost-of-living adjustments continue to be paid in full and on time, and that the agency continues to provide timely and efficient service for retirees, workers, and employers.”

 

Voices from the Board

Between February and April 2014 the Board conducted interviews with former Board and staff members at Social Security Administration’s (SSA) headquarters in Baltimore, MD.  Through targeted questions in those interviews, this portion of the website provides additional context regarding the purpose of the Board, the early days of the Board, and important issues addressed by the Board over time.

David Podoff, Former Board Member (10/00 – 09/06), on the purpose of the Board:

 “The Board had a very broad charge to look not only at the solvency of the Social Security trust funds, but also at income maintenance programs broadly defined and their economic and budget implications.  The Board is also charged with reviewing the administrative side of social security including its budget and staffing requirements. The Board interpreted its charge so as to study a very complicated disability program. So it had a very, very broad charge, and, as you look through the publications, I think it carried out those charges very well.”

Stanford Ross, Former Board Member (10/97 – 09/02; Chair 1997-02), on the role of the Board:

“My view is that what the Advisory Board was put in to do was really support SSA in its mission, try to do studies that would help the Commissioner and the agency, and support the Congress’ effort. We were very conscious of congressional relations. Margaret (Former Board Staff Director (05/96 – 03/02)) came from the Senate Finance Committee, and we attempted to keep them informed and sought to get their ideas of what we should do. Finally, as a legacy from my Public Trustee days we sought to do as much public accountability and public education as we could. This was an important mission.”

 

Hal Daub, Former Board Member (01/02 – 09/06; Chair 2002-06), on the role and importance of the Board in the Social Security system and on the relationship between the Board and Congress during his tenure:

“In the larger sense, Congress wanted not just an oversight function to be played out in a more specialized and independent way, but they wanted real policy analysis to be done as dispassionately as possible. And I think that's the reason for the creation of the Board. So that there was a regular, functioning group of people with staff that could look at the policy and put a real microscope on the policy free of the politics of the legislative branch, but reporting to it in a constructive fashion. And I think that's the relationship.”

“We had a very productive relationship with the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, which are the principle committees with jurisdiction over the subject matter of the Board. We involved members of Congress in our business. We involved the staff of each of the subcommittees with jurisdiction, whether it was Social Security, or disability and Supplemental Security Income. It could be programs like Ticket to Work where we would bring staffers that were working on these particular issues to our monthly Board meetings. We would hold seminars and we would hold focused panel discussions on subjects and involve members of Congress and their staff. So we tried to perform our statutory mandate to be their specialists on this subject matter and be in a position where we could answer their questions and in a consultative way, in a two-way dialogue, suggest ways to improve the administration of Social Security and its many programs.”

Jeffrey Brown, Former Board Member (10/06 – 09/08), on the relationship between the Board and the White House:

“With regard to the White House’s view on policy, the Board is considered a rare case of true bipartisan thinking and analysis.  Because the Board has a history of issuing reports that reflect a consensus view of all members and that are fact-based and well-reasoned, the reports are considered a valuable resource.  The leading example of this is the Board’s work over the years on disability policy, where it has really distinguished itself as a thoughtful contributor to the policy discussions.  These reports are a nice change from the analyses that are often put out by groups with an ideological predisposition.

Another area where the Board is viewed as highly credible with the White House is with regard to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) budget priorities.  Discussions about program solvency tend to take most of the oxygen in the public discussions about Social Security.  But on issues related to the agency’s information technology infrastructure, the disability determination process, and human capital planning, there is much less objective and unbiased information available to OMB.  The Board plays this role quite well, providing a strategic and balanced perspective.

The other side of this relationship is the role of the President in naming three of the Board members subject to Senate confirmation.  As with so many other positions subject to Senate confirmation, the process is long, drawn-out, and has a highly uncertain outcome.  As a result, the Board is often short of members.  Indeed, at several points in the Board’s history, it has been down to 4 members and on the verge of losing a quorum.  The positive spin on this is that the Board is viewed as sufficiently important that both the White House and Senate care enough about who is on the Board that they put real time and energy into negotiating these positions.  The negative spin is that the positions get caught up in politics, which is unfortunate for a Board the prides itself on bipartisanship.”

Stanford Ross, Former Board Member (10/97 – 09/02; Chair 1997-02), on the challenges in starting the new Board:

“The largest challenge we faced at the beginning on the Board was what we ought to do. There had not been a Board before. We knew we were a replacement for the Advisory Councils, but we also knew it was not the old Social Security Administration, the old SSA, it was a new independent agency SSA. We were also aware of the changing relationship between SSA and Congress. Now we were very conscious of the need to keep Congress informed and involved. In fact, I insisted that the Board really stay busy, turn out reports, and prepare materials that were suitable for congressional hearings, so that the Congress could see we were engaged. I was always worried that if we did not do enough, and we did not sort of earn our keep, even though we were unpaid, doing this for the public good, nonetheless the Congress would be unhappy with us, and then the executive branch would be unhappy with us. So we kept very busy, and with a small staff, we turned out an enormous amount of work. I was very happy that we figured out how to handle this challenge of what the Board was going to be, and what it was going to do and what legacy it was going to leave. 

One of the big questions was, "That's how you're going to proceed, but what were the subjects you ought to do?" And we started out with service to the public, and we did a report on that and we really dug into how that could be improved, and what was going on out there. The Committees were interested in that too – House Ways and Means and Senate Finance. We also did what we could on financing, because the Board was a successor to the Advisory Councils, and as a result, there would no longer be Advisory Councils where the agency could go and build public support for its next initiatives, for which Robert Ball had used the Advisory Councils very assiduously all during his career. Some of our Board members were not too happy not to be doing more policy, and we did do policy at times, but I felt as a former Commissioner and former Public Trustee, that we could do more by doing subjects that were operational, and were of immediate relevance to things that were going on as opposed to doing high policy, because in some ways, Congress does a lot of high policy too and the academic world does. 

I thought the Board should use its special mandate to try to do things that nobody else could or would do as well and as a result we emphasized operational subjects.” 

 

 

Pictured (from left to right):Wayne Sulfridge, Former Staff to the Board (05/96 – 08/05); Margaret Malone, Former Board Staff Director (05/96 – 03/02); Stanford Ross, Former Board Member (10/97 – 09/02; Chair 1997-02); Gil Fisher, Former Staff to the Board (09/96 – 04/98); Jean Van Ancken, Former Staff to the Board (06/97 – 12/09); and Beverly Rollins, Former Staff to the Board (09/99 – 02/13); at the SSAB office in Washington, D.C. in November 1997.

 

Margaret Malone, Former Board Staff Director (05/96 – 03/02), on the role of the Staff Director of the Board and the early days of the Board:

“At the beginning, the role of the Staff Director was really a very prominent role because Harlan Mathews, who was the chair, lived in Tennessee. Since he was not always available to respond to issues, he instructed me to “do what you think you need to do.”  So I did.  There were a lot of problems to work out because the Board had nothing. It had no space. It had no staff other than me. It had no budget. It was really a job of creating something from nothing. But I started meeting regularly with Brian Coyne, who was the chief of staff for Social Security Commissioner Shirley Chater, and bit by bit I built up some confidence with him, I think. I reassured him that the role of the Board was advisory.  It was not an organization that was going to be trying to take over the administration of Social Security. 

But there were a lot of difficult issues and staffing was a primary one. Fortunately, the Ways and Means Committee reported a bill that gave the Board authority to hire its own staff.  The bill was picked up by the Finance Committee and became law. So, that problem was solved. We worked out a budget arrangement whereby there would be a special provision in the Federal budget that specifically allotted money to the Board. We wouldn't have to go to SSA every year and beg for money for our administrative costs. So, that was resolved. 

 

 

Pictured (from left to right): Beverly Rollins, Former Staff to the Board (09/99 – 02/13); George Schuette, Former Staff to the Board (02/99 – 07/11); Jo Ann Barnhart, Former Board Member (03/97 – 11/01); Wayne Sulfridge, Former Staff to the Board (05/96 – 08/05); Margaret Malone, Former Board Staff Director (05/96 – 03/02); David Warner, Current Staff to the Board; and Mike Brennan, Former Staff to the Board (04/00 – 04/03).  Location and date of picture unknown.

 

We were able to get our own space. At first SSA wanted the Board housed with them. That seemed to be not the best idea if we were supposed to be independent. So by luck, the head of the General Services Administration (GSA) at that time had been a former Senator Moynihan staff person, and I knew him. The GSA helped immediately to get us space, to get us furniture, and to get us all set up in our own space. We found a site that was just a block away from SSA headquarters, but it was the Board's own space. 

There were a lot of things like that. There also was a FACA (Federal Advisory Commission Act) issue. Senator Grassley didn't think it was a good idea to have a provision in the Board’s statute – which there was – that said that the Advisory Board could have closed meetings. That was allowable under the law. I had to work that out with the Grassley staff and Senator Grassley. We worked out an arrangement under which we wrote our own by-laws that allowed the Board to normally hold open meetings. But we were able to close them when we were going to have a special meeting with the Commissioner.  The Board felt strongly that there needed to be times when the Board could speak privately with the Commissioner. So, that was worked out. 

There were any number of issues like that that I, basically, had to try to resolve. 

The Board started holding regular monthly meetings in the spring of 1996, and we immediately took up some issues that were specified in the statute for the Board to address. We moved a little bit slowly until Stan Ross came in as the first confirmed chairman in 1997. We quickly took off and worked very collectively on a lot of issues, and started issuing reports, traveling around the country to visit offices, and doing some really intensive work. 

 

 

Pictured (from left to right): David Podoff, Former Board Member (10/00 – 09/06); Sylvester Schieber, Former Board Member (01/98 – 09/09; Chair 2006-09); Dorcas Hardy, Current Board Member; and Hal Daub, Former Board Member (01/02 – 09/06; Chair 2002-06); at the Bureau of Public Debt in Parkersburg, WV on August 16, 2006 holding the Social Security Trust Fund bonds.

 

It was not smooth in the very early days, because as I say, there was concern, I think, on the part of the Commissioner and others that the Board would interfere with the operations of the agency. It was a very uncertain time for the agency. Bit by bit the relationship strengthened, particularly when Ken Apfel came in as Commissioner. Ken had worked on Capitol Hill. I knew him very well, and he knew a lot of people involved with the Board. He had been at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and had worked with various people in that capacity. He'd been head of the OMB. Our first report called for the creation of a new policy office in the newly independent SSA, because the policy office that had been there in the early days after the creation of Social Security had been eliminated when Social Security became part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and, as Senator Moynihan used to say, “was buried within HHS."  The idea of a separate policy office for SSA apparently didn't appeal to the Department’s leadership. 

But the Board felt strongly that a new policy office should be created, and actually, someone who helped on that report and helped pull together the ideas for it was Gil Fisher who was on the staff of SSA for many years and a very wonderful employee. I knew him because he spent a lot of time up on the Hill. He was working for SSA in the legislative arena. Gil retired from Social Security and came to work for the Board for a while, and helped with that first report. That first report reflected one of the main purposes of the Congress in creating the Advisory Board, which was to provide a source of bipartisan advice on policy. To have an office in Social Security that would work on policy was something that the Board considered to be very important. Ken Apfel was in total agreement, and immediately picked up on that report and created a policy office.

And there were other reports that came out in the early days, and Ken was very much attuned. He came over to the Board often. We went over to the SSA offices. Stan and Ken worked closely together. It was a good collaboration in those early days.”

Sylvester Schieber, Former Board Member (01/98 – 09/09; Chair 2006-09), on the most challenging issues the Board faced during his tenure:

“Probably the most important, single issue that we focused on was the state of the information processing systems. 

As the Bush administration was winding down and the Obama administration was being formed, we had been looking at the agency's computer operating systems and their backups. As the transition process was underway, we were approached by some folks that were transitioning out of the agency and were informed that there were some very significant risks facing Social Security’s main data and operations systems. 

 

 

Pictured (from left to right): Marsha Katz, Former Board Member (11/06 – 09/12; Acting Chair 2011-12); Mark Warshawsky, Former Board Member (12/06 – 09/12); Dana Bilyeu, Former Board Member (12/06 – 09/10); Sylvester Schieber, Former Board Member (01/98 – 09/09; Chair 2006-09); Jeffrey Brown, Former Board Member (10/06 – 09/08); Barbara Kennelly, Current Board Member; and Dorcas Hardy, Current Board Member; at a Question and Answer Session at the University of Great Falls in Great Falls, MT between October 28-31, 2007.

 

Virtually all of the systems operations were housed at the headquarters campus, and if something catastrophic were to strike the complex, the ability to have a backup system up and operating was certainly not up to modern day standards. The senior administrator’s estimate at the time was that if the main facility was hit with a catastrophic event, within a week or so they could have roughly 25% of the operating system back in operation but the agency would not have email, would not have phone systems and would have extremely limited data processing capacity. From my perspective, this was an extremely frightening prospect.

As this was coming to our attention, mind you, I was chair of the Advisory Board, a Senate Republican appointee who had been promoted to Chair by President George W. Bush. And so in at least one Board member’s view the question arose as to why this seemingly troubling issue was being raised just as we were changing from a Republican to a Democratic administration. It took some real hand-holding and convincing to let people know that this was not a being raised with the Board at this particular time because of some political agenda on my part. 

From my perspective, the thought of Social Security operations being shut down completely for up to a week and practically for much longer than that, was a dramatically frightening prospect that had just been brought to our attention. It was a matter that has to be addressed; one that had significant staffing and budget ramifications and one where we needed to raise our voice to make sure the issues was being addressed with all due urgency. Congress did respond with emergency funding and the agency has made tremendous progress in creating system redundancy and separate operating facilities that have dramatically reduced the risks we had discovered.” 

David Podoff, Former Board Member (10/00 – 09/06), on issues the Board examined that he thought were important:

“Solvency and disability, and really the Ticket to Work program because – as noted above – I was really disappointed how people felt about the Ticket to Work program and that it did not take off as well as it should have.  At the time the Ticket to Work was enacted, at the end of the 1990s, I was Chief of Staff for Senator Moynihan, the Ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance.  I spent a lot of time negotiating with other staffs representing Senators Jeffords and Kennedy, Chair and Ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions, and Senator Roth, Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance.  I helped shepherd the legislation through many hurdles.

In the end I think there are reasons why the Ticket was not as successful as I and others had hoped. The program was not as generous in terms of the kinds of payments to the vendors and others providing support services for the disabled. That's because any time you increased proposed funding for the Ticket program you had to find an offsetting reduction in expenditures somewhere else – not always an easy task.  As a result the Ticket program had some budget limitations which limited its potential.

This is a general budget problem we face in many areas including staffing for SSA.  The Board has tried to weigh in with respect to staffing and trying to make sure the agency, which has, relative to its responsibilities, a very, very small budget, is adequately funded. I think we take very, very short sighted stances, and if you have a program like Ticket to Work and you want it to succeed you have to make sure it's adequately funded.”  

Sylvester Schieber, former Board member (01/98 – 09/09; Chair 2006-09), discussing the role of the Technical Panels to the Board:

“The advisory councils and more recently the Board have generally been made up of people with a broad public interest in Social Security and the provision of income security to whatever constituency they have been drawn from, but, for the most part, they had not been immersed in the laborious detailed process of figuring out how the system has worked over time, and how it is expected to work in the future. 

And so the technical panel, or a group of technical experts – some demographers, some actuaries, some economists, what have you – people with technical expertise that can be brought to bear on these various issues to make sure that the actuaries who are doing the technical work on an ongoing basis are using methods and assumptions that are sensible. The technical panels also look at the presentation of the program analytics to make sure that they're informing the public and policy makers about the path we're on and the sustainability of that path which is of vital importance.

And so these special panels gathered periodically review the work being done by the actuaries and other analysts involved in the annual valuation reviews and prepare technical reports that are not generally meant for public consumption in the way the advisory council or Board reports are meant to be but are of vital importance to make sure that the annual review analysis is being done properly. With the presentation of the technical panel reports, the Board members are given assurance from people with technical expertise other than the internal staff responsible for the annual valuation work that the work is being done properly.

Part of the due-diligence activities of the Board is to evaluate various aspects of the program’s operations including the development of the annual trustees’ reports. While individual members of the Board might not have the expertise to look at the methods and assumptions being used in developing these reports and concluding "Oh, this makes sense," or "This doesn't quite make sense," or "We ought to tweak this a bit," or "We've learned this in our work,” their reliance on independent experts working with the actuaries and their staffs allows the Board to make those assessments. While this sort of activity may seem quite mundane to someone looking at what the Board does but Social Security is our national compact across generations, and it needs to work.

And if the annual assessments of its evolution are not keeping us informed about how it is working, then we have a major potential problem of it getting off track without our knowing it and jeopardizing its ongoing operations. So the convening of a technical panel is an insurance policy for both the Board members and the various constituencies to whom it reports. As far as I'm concerned, convening these panels periodically is an extremely sensible policy.”

Deborah Sullivan, Former Board Staff Director (09/07 – 06/13), on the role and purpose of the Disability Policy Panel appointed by the Board:

“For several years, the Board has focused much of their time and effort on SSA’s disability programs.  While they have studied such issues as the financing of the disability program, disability systems upgrades, issues with representatives for disability and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claimants, and the problems with the hearing process, they did not tackle the specific disability policies that are often cited as problematic.  Because of the technical nature of these issues, the Board agreed that a panel of experts should be commissioned to study the individual issues and make recommendations for the Board’s consideration.  The kind of policy issues that it is envisioned these panels will address include such areas as the sequential evaluation process, the use of treating source opinion, the CDR process, the use of medical and vocational experts, and the assessment of residual functional capacity.

This type of panel is not without precedent; the Board hosts periodic technical panels to assess issues pertaining to the financing of the Social Security program.  And the Board’s predecessor, the Quadrennial Councils on Social Security, convened panels to address policy issues that were of major importance to agency programs.”

Hal Daub, Former Board Member (01/02 – 09/06; Chair 2002-06), on the Board’s relationship with SSA during his tenure:

“It was always terrific, and not only in what I call the “head shed” at the administrative offices in Baltimore, we would hold field hearings at least twice a year. We'd try a rotation over a two-year period to hold hearings in each of the regional offices, not always in the regional headquarters city, but to do at least one field hearing within each region.  I think that was very important so that regional administrators were involved and off we'd go to do office visits; actually sit out in the waiting room and watch people come in and take their number and be serviced at the windows by very able and well trained men and women that were benefits specialists. So we tried to be very hands on and not only just talk about the policy delivery mechanism of Social Security if you will, but make sure that they were analyzed for the practical delivery: for example, how customer friendly is the system and its program, how available is information, can people relieve their frustration fairly efficiently and quickly. We were very interested in the administration of Social Security not just the policy itself.”

 

 

Pictured (from left to right): Jagadeesh Gokhale, Current Board Member; Barbara Kennelly, Current Board Member; Katherine Thornton, Current Deputy Chief of Staff for Acting SSA Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin and Former Board Staff Director (02/05 – 10/11); Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, Current Board Member; and Claire Green, Current Board Director; at a Continuing Disability Review (CDR) meeting at SSA headquarters in Baltimore, MD on January 16, 2014. 

 

Stanford Ross, Former Board Member (10/97 – 09/02; Chair 1997-02), on Board field visits:

 “The field office trips addressed a number of concerns we had.  It was important to have people throughout SSA understand we were there and trying to contribute to the mission. I had learned as Commissioner that field office people often know more about the agency than the people in the national office. They certainly feel different parts of the elephant. One of the things I used to do as Commissioner, when I had that privilege, was I would often just have field office people who were ordinary field office people, not the heads, pull up chairs, dismiss my staff and ask them to tell me what was going on, because they really did know what was going on and probably that is still the case.

Then I would be in a position to have information you could not get in any other way. I felt that would be true with the Board too, that if we went around and really got people to talk to us, we would know what issues needed to be addressed and what we ought to be working on and what we ought to encourage the agency to work on. Indeed it did work that way. It was because of that information we put our emphasis on the disability issues, because clearly the disability programs were having all kinds of problems. We also found problems with the local offices and how much work they had to do and how little time they had to do it. There were all kinds of operational issues, which we fed back to the agency. So it was both a way of making our role known in the agency and improving performance. We very often held hearings to talk with the public and communicate with them; it was a way of getting material for our research activities and a way of developing recommendations to help the agency and Congress. It was a very crucial part of our work.”

 


[1] The views reflected in this Oral History of the Board do not necessarily represent the views of the current Board.