WASHINGTON — Jo Anne Barnhart, President Bush's choice for Social Security commissioner, said at her confirmation hearing Thursday that any plan to restore financial stability to the system must be a bipartisan effort and should occur soon.
"The important thing is for Congress to take action soon," said Barnhart, who already serves on the Social Security Advisory Board. Her confirmation is so nearly certain that just two of the 21 senators on the Senate Finance Committee showed up for the hearing.
As commissioner, Barnhart could face conflict on Capitol Hill over proposals to reshape Social Security. Bush favors letting younger workers invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market and has created a panel to recommend a plan this fall. Critics contend private accounts are risky and would drain money from the system.
"The recent huge declines in stock prices should give us pause," said committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
Social Security also faces other challenges. For example, a person seeking disability benefits can wait as long as three years for a decision; just two-thirds of toll-free calls made to the agency last year were answered, Baucus said.
The problem of staffing at the agency is expected to grow, he said. Almost half of Social Security's 65,000-member work force is expected to leave or retire in the next decade.
Barnhart said that if she is confirmed, she will study the agency's needs to determine optimum service and employment levels. She agreed to give the committee her findings by March 31.
"I think we can do a lot better than we're doing, and we must do better," she said.
Barnhart was a private consultant on welfare issues to state and local governments before being nominated.