One of the most important programs that Americans turn to for financial support is Social Security. Tens of millions of people receive retirement benefits from Social Security, and that makes it a politically charged issue whenever lawmakers talk about its growing financial difficulties and make suggestions for reform.
But as the latest report on Social Security's trust funds showed, those financial problems aren't getting better by themselves. Social Security needs bold ideas from all corners in order to meet its current challenges. One problem, though, is that the six-person board of trustees that oversees the Social Security trust funds has had two unfilled vacancies for several years. Now, President Donald Trump is looking to get those seats filled, and that could give the general public a key role in helping to determine Social Security's future.
Who runs the Social Security trust funds?
Ever since the Social Security trust funds were created in the late 1930s, there's been a board of trustees to oversee them. Originally, the trustees were all government officials, either cabinet members or civil employees. The Treasury Secretary has historically been the managing trustee overseeing the other trustees, and that remains the case today.
In 1983, Social Security reform led to the addition of two more trustees. Alan Greenspan, who would later become chair of the Federal Reserve, led a commission investigating potential changes to Social Security. The Greenspan Commission recommended that two members of the general public be added to the board of trustees for the trust funds, with the idea that they could represent the views and needs of ordinary Americans. Mary Falvey Fuller and Suzanne Denbo Jaffe became the first public trustees of the Social Security trust funds in 1984, and subsequently, several others have served in the role.
Why aren't there public trustees right now?
Recently, though, the public trustee roles have been vacant. From 2008 to 2010, no public trustees signed Social Security's annual trustees report, with Congress having objected to the continued service of then-President George W. Bush's two selections who had been in the role since 2000. From 2011 to 2015, appointees from President Obama served in the role, but similar conflicts with Capitol Hill led to new vacancies from 2016 on.
The vacancies are a bit difficult to explain. As presidential appointees, public trustees are chosen for four-year terms. In an acknowledgment of political realities, the rules governing the appointment call for the two people not to be in the same political party. Other than that, though, there's no list of criteria, with the idea being that these should be ordinary members of the public with the experience or drive to learn about Social Security and its financial condition. Yet Washington gridlock has still prevailed.
President Trump is now seeking to change that. He's chosen James Lockhart, a former deputy commission of the Social Security Administration, to serve as the Republican public trustee, according to a White House announcement. Democratic leaders say that they're working on coming up with names of a potential second public trustee for the president to consider for nomination.
The first step toward meaningful reform
Appointing public trustees might seem to be more of a photo opportunity moment than a meaningful contribution toward addressing Social Security's difficulties. But public trustees can keep current government workers and cabinet members from seeking to mislead the public, as well as providing a key outside perspective that members of the government lack. In that vein, the appointment of former government employee Lockhart might not seem ideal, but there's no question that he has the experience to address Social Security's problems in an informed manner.
President Trump's attempts to name public trustees to the Social Security trust funds are a good first step in addressing the situation facing Social Security. Hopefully, by the time Social Security releases its trustees report in 2019, its signature page will no longer have any vacancies.
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