Senior Living


Health & Spirit

Social Security and You: Shutdown Silliness

Tom Margenau on

As I am writing this, the government is in the middle of another of its silly shutdown soap operas. But my hunch is that by the time you read this, the shutdown will be over. The news seems to indicate that Congress will pass a temporary funding measure that will last until about Feb. 8, when we may very well go through this all over again.

I'm not even going to begin to comment on the politics of this shutdown mess. I'll let the pundits and bloggers handle that.

I'm also not going to write too much about what most seniors are interested in during these shutdowns -- the issuance of Social Security checks. I'm sure everyone has heard that the payment of Social Security (and Medicare) benefits are mandatory government services paid for through trust funds that are NOT part of the discretionary budget process affected by these shenanigans.

But I am going to share some of my own personal experiences with past government shutdowns and discuss the administrative nightmares and concurrent costly bureaucratic maneuvering involved in shutting down a federal government agency.

But first, let me point out what Social Security services might be affected when the government is in shutdown mode. The following information comes from the Social Security Administration website:

Due to the Federal Government Shutdown, Social Security field offices are open with limited services. Hearings offices remain open to conduct hearings before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Social Security card centers are closed.

Social Security and Supplemental Security Income payments to beneficiaries will continue with no change in payment dates.

Due to a lapse in funding, we will only provide the following services at local Social Security field offices:

1. Help you apply for benefits

2. Assist you in requesting an appeal

3. Change your address or direct deposit information

4. Accept reports of death

5. Verify or change your citizenship status

6. Replace a lost or missing Social Security payment

7. Issue a critical payment

8. Change a representative payee


9. Process a change in your living arrangement or income (SSI recipients only)

We cannot provide the following services:

1. Issue new or replacement Social Security cards

2. Replace your Medicare card

3. Issue a proof of income letter

4. Update or correct earnings record

Frankly, I'm a little puzzled why "verify or change your citizenship status" is considered an essential service while "issue new or replacement Social Security cards" is not. Oh, well, I'm sure there is a method to the madness!

I also read on SSA's website that about 52,000 out of approximately 62,000 employees are deemed "essential" and were not furloughed. I think most of the 52,000 essential employees work in one of the agency's 1,300 field offices around the country. In other words, most of the 10,000 nonessential employees work at SSA's headquarters or in other administrative offices.

And that leads me to share some of my own experiences with past shutdowns. I went through two of them while working for the Social Security Administration. During one of the shutdowns, I was working in a local Social Security office and thus was deemed "essential" and was kept on during the funding crisis. During the other shutdown, I was in a rather high-level administrative position, and thus was furloughed during the shutdown.

But here is a part of the shutdown madness that most people probably are not aware of. When I was laid off as a "nonessential" employee, I (and all other furloughed feds) ended up getting paid anyway. Following these shutdown episodes, Congress always quietly passes legislation authorizing continued salary payments to furloughed government employees. On the one hand, you could make the case that government employees shouldn't suffer because of the political posturing of Congress. On the other hand, I essentially got a taxpayer-funded one-week free vacation during the time I was furloughed. Thank you!

And let me make one more point regarding this shutdown craziness. If you go to SSA's website, you can find a copy of their "Shutdown Contingency Plan." It is contained in a letter from the head the agency's budget office to the director of the government's Office of Management and Budget. Here is an excerpt:

"During a lapse in appropriations, we must cease all activities for which our annual funding has expired, unless an exception to the Antideficiency Act applies. See 1980 and 1981 Opinions from Attorney General Civiletti (1980 and 1981 Opinions). Three exceptions apply to our work: the wind-down activities exception, the protection of life and property exception, and the Necessary Implication exception. See id. With respect to the wind-down exception, Attorney General Civiletti explained that, "(F)ederal officers (may) incur those minimal obligations (during a lapse in appropriations) necessary to closing their agencies." 1980 Opinion. In 1981, Attorney General Civiletti advised that Federal agencies may obligate funds during a lapse under the protection of life and property exception by showing a 'reasonable necessity' of the funded activity to ensure the safety of human life or protection of property. 1981 Opinion. Attorney General Civiletti also opined that the Necessary Implication exception allows a limited number of Government functions funded through annual appropriations to continue despite a lapse in their appropriations because the lawful continuation of other activities Page 2 -- Mr. Mick Mulvaney necessarily implies that these functions continue as well."

I have read that several times and I have absolutely no idea what it is saying. And I'm sure you don't either. But I include it here to help illustrate the wasteful bureaucratic silliness that is involved in shutting down a federal government agency. This was one small part of a six-page letter full of more gobbledygook. And think about it. There are hundreds of federal government agencies. All of them were required to create a "shutdown contingency plan" similar to SSA's plan. And all of them were required to go through the hassles of laying off thousands of employees and shutting down hundreds of offices. Just imagine all the time, effort and wasteful spending that goes into this silly process. And, of course, it is time and money that could have been saved if Congress had just done its job in the first place.


If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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