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Social Security lines show it’s time to put Congress on the front lines of public service

While it is not uncommon for someone upset about a law to be told “You should call Congress,” the reality is that Congress is supposed to do more than just legislate. Early in American history, some of the most important work Congress performed was constituent service. For example, members of Congress often needed to help Revolutionary War veterans secure pensions promised by the government.

It’s the same today.

Constituent service is as important as ever in part because federal agencies are struggling to serve the public effectively. This can be seen in recent press reports that elderly and disabled people have had to wait in long lines in the hot sun of FloridaNew Mexico, and Texas just to get service from understaffed local Social Security offices.

Citizens are probably shocked that their government treats elderly and disabled people this way. One observer in Texas noted: “There was a lady that they wheeled over to load up in an ambulance that had fainted in line because it was very hot that day.”

Why is this happening? Because appropriators in the current Congress cut nearly $1 billion from President Biden’s customer service budget for the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Congress fully expects that the complaining public will gripe to SSA, not to Congress.

A difference between the early Congress and today is it’s easier to contact your representative: If you don’t know the number for your Representative, here is the phone number to the U.S. Capitol Switchboard, where operators will connect you to House and Senate offices: (202) 224-3121.

Given that Congress is the root cause of the problem, it’s reasonable to think it should be part of the solution.

Providing greater levels of constituent service is one way Congress can help.

Federal agencies, such as SSA, track, monitor, and resolve requests for help that are routed through a congressional office. In addition, members of Congress typically have caseworkers on staff, usually in the home office, that have technical expertise on federal programs, such as Social Security, and can help resolve problems with federal agencies.

Thus — and particularly for very complex problems — members of the public may be more likely to get issues resolved by contacting Congress than by waiting in lines that snake around a federal office building.

A greater commitment to constituent service would also have broader beneficial effects on federal programs and the reputation of Congress.

Congress needs to appreciate the consequences of its poor decisions on funding — and needs to try to perform better in the future.

Today, it is easy for Congress to systematically underfund federal agencies and then hide behind those agencies (or even blame them) when things get ugly. Putting Congress on the front lines of service will — in a very real fashion — force elected leaders and congressional staff to deal with the mistakes they make.

Further, Congress often creates overly complex programs to make political or policy points, with little concern about whether those programs can be understood by the public or effectively administered. For example, the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides support to low-income elderly and disabled persons, is notoriously complex. As a result, administrative errors are not uncommon, and too few people participate in the program.

A greater focus on helping constituents navigate complex programs would, in a natural way, suggest possible program simplifications that could be pursued through legislation.

Shifting time and energy to constituent service would also take the edge off the hyper-partisan political climate in the country. Republicans would find many constituents legitimately need help from the government. Similarly, Democrats would find many members of the business community struggle to navigate arcane and complex regulations issued by federal agencies.

While a greater focus on constituent service would, obviously, not alter the basic political philosophies of the parties, it could help create informed and well-rounded elected leaders who could learn to appreciate nuance instead of hard edges and to value practicality over ideology.

Indeed, it would be heartening to see servant leadership take hold in Congress, where elected officials spend some personal time in the trenches with their caseworkers to solve constituent problems. This would improve the reputation of Congress as an institution because the public could see members doing work that matters.

Some elected officials might even realize that better constituent service is smart politics because they could develop a brand that sets them apart. Rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives traditionally have little legislative influence but could distinguish themselves through constituent service. In particular, it would be refreshing to see a Constituent Service Caucus develop and be added to the long list of caucuses currently associated with Congress.

Alternately, an existing caucus, such as the Problem Solvers Caucus, could adopt constituent service as an issue and, perhaps, compile and analyze data on constituent requests. Such an analysis could be summarized in an annual report that is delivered to the authorizing and appropriations committees to help improve programs and funding for agencies.

Deep-pocketed and large public-cause foundations and organizations should also do more to help Congress focus on constituent service. Although some organizations exist that promote this activity, many of the large foundations currently chase trendy topics or causes with their time and money rather than focusing on the dry but crucial topic of better government.

Finally, it should be emphasized that Congress, as an institution, mainly responds to pressure. Americans need to make it a habit to call Congress every time they have a thorny issue with a federal agency. They may just get the help they need, and in the process, they may help Congress get back to fulfilling its obligation to make government work for the people.

David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. His views do not reflect the views of any federal agency.

Tags Congress public service Social Security Social Security Administration

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