Public policy, money and politics are integrally related. Here is one example.
Proposals to change Social Security involve a lot of money. The proposals could also impact the political future for some politicians. And, of course, the Social Security Admistration is the agency that administers the program and distributes vast sums of money through the Social Security program.
So it isn’t too surprising that a question has been raised by politicians. Has the Social Security Administration engaged in a grassroots lobbying campaign to encourage support for the President’s proposal to reform the Social Security program?
Each year the Social Security Administration sends out a letter to Americans telling them the status of their Social Security accounts. The statement provides an estimate of the benefits a worker is to receive and the records of the SSA showing the worker’s employment history.
The proposal to change the Social Security system is obviously fraught with politics with major players looking for an edge–or a fear that other major players will gain an edge in the political debate. This annual document issued by SSA is no exception.
The dispute focused on a paragraph of the newsletter that says the system is facing future financial problems and that action is needed to make sure “the system is sound when today’s younger workers are ready for retirement.” The newsletter goes on to state that in 14 years the system will be paying more in benefits than is being received in taxes and that the benefits in the statement are based on current law and that “Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so at any time.” The sample statement also states that “The law governing benefits amounts may change because, by 2042, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 73 percent of current benefits.”
Various Senators wrote to GAO contending that the Social Security Administration is engaging in a grassroots lobbying effort to encourage Americans to write their elected representatives in support of the President’s proposed changes to Social Security. That would be a violation of law. The letter also states that Social Security employees have instructed on how to best convince the public that immediate changes to the system are needed.
After reviewing the statement and materials cited by the Senators, the GAO concluded that none of the materials ask the public to contact Congress in support of an SSA position.
The Senators seeking GAO action requested GAO to find a violation of law based on a lesser standard than a clear appeal to the public urging the public to contact Congress in support of an agency’s position on a policy issue. They contend that GAO should consider the “intent” of SSA and whether the agency’s message “would be likely to influence the public to contact Congress” in support of the agency’s position.
But, says GAO, the standard suggested by the Senators would not be workable. It would require GAO to be “highly speculative” and doubtful that GAO could objectively make such a determination.
Also, federal agencies have a legitimate need to communicate with the public on activities of an agency. GAO has been careful not to interpret legislation prohibiting grassroots lobbying efforts in such a way as to restrict the use of public funds to send information to the public on agency positions on public policy initiatives.
Therefore, concluded the GAO, no further action is necessary as there has not been a violation of law in spending public funds on this issue by the Social Security Administration.