WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s pick to head the Social Security Administration could be stalled over the agency’s handling of a $300 million computer project that doesn’t work.
A group of Republican senators said Wednesday they will try to block the nomination of Carolyn W. Colvin until an investigation into the troubled computer project is concluded.
A senior Democratic senator agreed that Colvin’s confirmation should be delayed until she answers questions about the project, increasing the likelihood that a vote will be pushed into next year, when Republicans take control of the Senate.
All 11 Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee signed a letter to Colvin Wednesday. They said there is evidence Social Security officials may have misled Congress and investigators about problems with the computer program, which is supposed to help workers process and manage disability claims.
Colvin has been the acting commissioner since February 2013. Before that, she was deputy commissioner for three and-a-half years. Obama nominated her to a six-year term in June.
“We cannot in good faith allow a nomination for any position that requires the advice and consent of the Senate to proceed to a vote as long as the spectre of a potential criminal investigation surrounds the nominee and/or those in their inner circle,” wrote the senators, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Finance Committee.
“Therefore,” the senators wrote to Colvin, “it is essential to address your role with respect to this inquiry before each of us can make an informed decision on how to vote for your nomination once it reaches the full Senate for consideration.”
A Social Security spokeswoman said in an email: “Carolyn W. Colvin is not personally the subject of any criminal investigation.”
“Agency representatives previously briefed members of the Senate and House regarding the issues raised in the Senate Republican Finance members’ letter,” said the agency spokeswoman, LaVenia LaVelle. “The acting commissioner will respond timely and fully to the members’ requests, and continue to co-operate with Congress and any related investigation.”
LaVelle noted that the agency just received the senators’ letter Wednesday afternoon.
The Finance Committee has jurisdiction over the Social Security Administration in the Senate.
Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said: “I think all senators will want to see her responses before acting on that nomination. As for the underlying investigation, I won’t comment until the process runs its full course and the facts are known. It’s critical that our tax dollars are spent properly which is why the questions need answers and there’s an understanding of what happened and why.”
Social Security officials have acknowledged that the agency has spent nearly $300 million on a computer project that doesn’t work, though the project predates Colvin’s tenure as acting commissioner.
Since Colvin took over, the agency commissioned an outside contractor to assess what went wrong with the project and how to fix it.
Six years ago, Social Security embarked on an aggressive plan to replace outdated computer systems overwhelmed by a growing flood of disability claims. But the project has been racked by delays and mismanagement, according to the assessment commissioned by the agency.
The project is still in the testing phase, and the agency can’t say when it will be operational or how much it will cost.
In the meantime, people filing for disability claims face long delays at nearly every step of the process — delays that were supposed to be reduced by the new processing system.
The Associated Press reported on the computer problems in July. In September, the Finance Committee voted 22-2 to advance Colvin’s nomination to the full Senate.
“Since doing so, additional troubling information has come to our attention regarding SSA’s mismanagement of the (computer project) that may bear on your qualifications to serve as commissioner,” the senators wrote to Colvin.
The senators cited a report by the inspector general for Social Security “that raised, but did not resolve, a variety of issues including possible actions by SSA officials to mislead both the Congress and the inspector general about the deficiencies in the development of the” computer project.
The investigation has since been turned over to the inspector general for the Small Business Administration to avoid any conflict with Social Security’s investigator.
“It’s my understanding that this investigation will take several months to complete,” Wyden said.
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