by Maria Freese, NCPSSM Government Relations& Policy Director

Congress and the President are beginning the final stages of a high-stakes political game of poker as the year winds down. With no compromise in sight on funding levels for any of our government agencies, this is the first time in recent memory that a President has categorically refused to negotiate on the total amount of spending by the federal government. His Administration picked a top-line number and he’s sticking to it no matter what – a tactic the American public has become all too familiar with during the past 7 years.

Included in this game of chicken is funding essential to operate the Social Security Administration. SSA is one of the few agencies that raises money for its own operations. A small portion of every dollar of payroll taxes covers administrative costs.

But because SSA funding is mixed together with funds for other agencies such as National Institutes of Health, SSA must compete for a limited pot of money. The result is that since 2001, SSA has suffered a $1 billion cut from its budget requests, leaving it without enough money to replace employees as they leave. This despite the new responsibilities Congress and the President have placed on the Agency, including verifying eligibility for the low-income subsidies in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program – and at a time when the agency is facing the beginning of benefit claims by the baby boom generation.

The result? Offices around the country are closing, and Americans are facing increasingly long waiting times for everything from getting a question answered to having an application for disability payments reviewed. The disability issue is especially critical, as the average wait for a hearing now stretches 18 months.

Congress added $275 million to the President’s request for the Agency’s funding in the 2008 Labor-HHS Appropriations bill, for a total of $9.9 billion. This amount would help SSA tread water – it’s by no means enough to reverse the shortfalls of the past. But the President has threatened to veto this bill, and it’s not clear Congress will have the votes to override the veto. If Congress is forced to start cutting programs in order to meet the President’s demands, SSA funds are at risk just like any other agency’s – despite the program’s $190 billion surplus.

As the President pushes Congress into this game of political brinksmanship, we hope he will consider that more is at stake here than an arbitrary set of budget numbers. For seniors and the disabled who count on Social Security, their very survival may be at risk.