'We have no opinions on the best way to fix Social Security'

When Stephen Goss, the most senior actuary at the Social Security Administration, testified before Congress last year about the solvency of the entitlement program, his remarks were barely noticed. Instead, the spotlight was on his Medicare counterpart Rick Foster, who had made headlines alleging that he would have been fired if he disclosed politically sensitive cost estimates to Congress on the controversial prescription-drug bill.When Stephen Goss, the most senior actuary at the Social Security Administration, testified before Congress last year about the solvency of the entitlement program, his remarks were barely noticed.

Instead, the spotlight was on his Medicare counterpart Rick Foster, who had made headlines alleging that he would have been fired if he disclosed politically sensitive cost estimates to Congress on the controversial prescription-drug bill.

When the two men appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee on March 24, 2004, lawmakers on the panel asked Foster 156 questions. Goss was asked six, two of them about Foster’s situation.

With Social Security reform on the top of President Bush’s domestic agenda, Goss knows that this year will be different.

“We expect to be busy,” Goss said.

In an interview, he said he is “very confident” that a rerun of the Medicare scoring controversy that attracted headlines last year will not emerge in this year’s debate to reform Social Security.

“We are totally apolitical,” Goss said. “We have no opinions on the best way to fix Social Security.”
Democrats will be watching closely because there are many similarities between the Medicare drug bill and Social Security reform. Like Medicare, much of the controversy over Social Security surrounds its price tag. And like Medicare reform, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Bush administration actuaries have different estimates on the program’s future.

As chief actuaries, Congress has given Foster and Goss more independence than other government employees. Last year, Foster said his independence was trampled by then-Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) chief Tom Scully, a political appointee whose primary job was to pass the president’s Medicare bill. Scully adamantly rejects Foster’s account.

Goss, who has worked with Foster since 1973, sided with Foster. But those who know Goss said he wished Foster had raised his concerns before the Medicare bill was passed, not after.

Bruce Schobel, a former board member with the American Academy of Actuaries who knows both, said, “Steve Goss is no Rick Foster. … If a political appointee tried to silence him, there would have been an eruption.”

Schobel said he is not criticizing Foster but merely pointing out that Goss would have made waves much earlier than the CMS actuary: “Goss is not in any way out of control, but if you try to manipulate him politically, he’ll go nuts.”

When Foster addressed the academy’s conference last May, he received a standing ovation, Schobel said. But Goss was less sympathetic than many of his fellow actuaries, Schobel added.

In contrast to CMS, the SSA is considered an independent agency. But congressional Democrats have recently questioned that independence after agency employees alleged they were pressured to promote Social Security reform. Some Republicans have pointed out that SSA officials are union representatives, claiming the charges are politically motivated.

The head of the SSA is Jo Anne Barnhart, who worked for the first Bush administration and is a former staffer for the late Sen. William Roth (R-Del.). Barnhart contributed $2,000 to President Bush in August.

Goss noted that he reports to Barnhart and said he keeps her apprised of every legislative request. The only time Goss temporarily keeps information from Barnhart is when congressional officials request confidentiality.

In a statement to The Hill, Barnhart said, “Steve Goss is a national treasure. … [He] is committed to making sure the administration and Congress get accurate, insightful analysis on a timely basis.”

Before she was confirmed by the Senate, Barnhart promised Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) that the SSA would be upfront with Congress: “You have my commitment that I will provide the most accurate data and information available to me.”

Unlike Medicare actuaries, the SSA actuaries release their score of legislation once it is introduced. If Medicare had a similar process, it is likely that the Foster controversy would not have occurred and would have enhanced the chances that the drug bill would not have been signed into law.
Goss works in Baltimore, which is only an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital. But in many ways, he is worlds away from Washington.

Goss’s job is to crunch numbers, regularly using such terms as “outlays” and “sustainable solvency.” He is a rare nonpartisan figure in what already is a fierce political fight to reshape a program that has been deemed the third rail of politics.

The chief actuary is a well-respected career bureaucrat and one of the few who can go into detail about the Social Security reform bill that was enacted 22 years ago.

“He’s a classic policy wonk,” said Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute. “He’s the kind of guy who e-mails you at 2 in the morning to tell you about a thought he has on some provision.”

In his post, Goss cannot be politically biased, and the consensus is that he is not. Tanner said Goss “is not partisan at all.” A House Democratic aide said, “We think the world of Steve Goss.”

Despite his wonkish reputation, Goss handles politically touchy questions like a seasoned politician. Asked whether Republicans or Democrats on the committees of jurisdiction get higher preference for projections, Goss said his team “multitasks” and can accommodate all of their requests.

Actuarial rivalries usually don’t attract attention, but they did on Medicare last year and could resurface on Social Security in 2005. Goss noted that, for the first time last year, CBO put together a long-term estimate for Medicare solvency.

CBO’s long-term projection on Social Security “is the new game in town,” Goss said.
CBO estimates that Social Security will remain solvent 10 more years than Goss’s projection of 2042.

CBO worked with Goss on projecting the long-term landscape of Social Security. But CBO and Goss’s shop of 40 actuaries and five economists are scoring congressional plans independently.

Under most of the reform plans, Goss said, two out of every three Social Security beneficiaries would participate in personal accounts. To set up the accounts, the government would have to spend between $1 trillion and $2 trillion on transition costs.

Goss said transition cost is a hard-to-define concept and labeled them the “Rubik’s Cube” of Social Security reform.