The Honorable Jo Anne Barnhart, a graduate of Brandywine High School and the University of Delaware, served as Commissioner of the United States Social Security Administration under President George W. Bush from 2001-2007. This made her, until the election of Vice President Biden, the highest-ranking Delawarean to serve in the Executive Branch of the federal government since 1889.
Barnhart, a long-time senior policy and political aide to U.S. Senator Bill Roth, was also Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President George H. W. Bush, Associate Commissioner for Family Assistance under President Ronald Reagan, a member of the Social Security Advisory Board, and political director of the Republican Senatorial Committee. She was inducted to the University of Delaware “Wall of Fame” in 2004.
TOWN SQUARE DELAWARE: You first went to work on Capitol Hill in 1977. Aside from the traffic, how has the world of government and politics in Washington changed since then?
JO ANNE BARNHART: Like the traffic, it seems gridlock has permeated the government and politics as well.
Naturally, there has always been a partisan divide – that’s what a two-party system is all about. But it does seem that over time, that divide has gotten wider and sharper which makes it more difficult to find the middle ground to keep America moving forward.
Surveys continue to show that the American electorate is a Center-Right — not extremist in either direction. Finding the centrist position means seeking reasonable compromise to pressing issues. Yet, increasingly, we hear politicians use the phrase “off the table” when discussing policy options. Sadly, this often leads to no action on important issues.
I also think the immediacy of the so-called “information age” has had a real influence. With the internet and 24-hour cable news, the general public is made aware of and able to react more quickly to “news” coming out of Washington. While this is a plus in terms of public engagement on the issues, at the same time, it can lead to lines getting drawn in the sand based on visceral reactions rather than full exploration and consideration of legislative policy proposals.
TSD: You are one of the rare individuals with both deep policy expertise as well as proven political acumen – most people chart a career in Washington focusing on one or the other, policy or politics. How did your career unfold that way?
JAB: I was very fortunate to begin my Washington experience working for Senator Bill Roth. He was an exceptional role model and mentor.
As a member of his legislative staff, I got to see first-hand how he carefully considered every issue – which, of course, meant making sure he understood the subject thoroughly. His careful scrutiny of the issues forced me to work to develop a real understanding of the policy portfolio that I handled for him. Learning the “ins and outs” of the various issues and how one policy can affect another resulted in my interest in policy issues – particularly those related to improving the future for America’s families.
As for the political side, again, Senator Roth provided my first opportunity when he asked me to manage his 1988 campaign for re-election. I think the same kind of analytical skills needed for policy making are needed in political campaigns – just with a different twist, so to speak.
I often describe myself as having a political and a policy side to my brain. Obviously, the two come together but there are distinct differences in policy and purely political jobs. Of course, the biggest difference is the timing. On Capitol Hill, things move rather slowly compared to the immediacy of a campaign. Another big difference is in political campaigns, there is a fixed time limit with measurable results – on election day you either win or lose.
As for my career unfolding – timing was everything! At various points in time, positions came along that seemed “made to order” with my experience. I consider myself very lucky to have benefited from serendipity of sorts. Most important, in every job I’ve ever had, I got to get up every day and work for principles I believe in. It simply doesn’t get any better than that.
TSD: Tell us about some of the characters you’ve worked with in politics. Who were stars and who were the overrated duds?
JAB: I have had the privilege of working with many different candidates for public office – most of them winning candidates.
I have to tell you that I have tremendous respect for the men and women who are willing to put their names forward as candidates for public office. Campaigns today can be brutal and I truly believe that anyone who is willing to subject themselves (and his/her family) to the fierce battles –and pure raw politics particularly evidenced in negative ads– has to have good motives. By that I mean they want to promote what they consider a better vision for our country and are willing to make personal sacrifices to do it.
As a result, my respect for individual candidates and office-holders far outweighs my desire to “kiss and tell!”
That said, without question, there are two stand-out “stars.” First, Senator Roth. He was a visionary – often championing issues before their time. He was intelligent, honest, and thoughtful. And despite his rise to chair the Senate Finance Committee, the most powerful committee in Congress, he never forgot the people of Delaware he was elected to serve. Finally, he was more concerned about accomplishing something good for the people of America than getting “credit.”
Second, President Reagan. He was an inspirational leader with an optimistic outlook and deep love for America and her promise. I think that’s why even the people who didn’t always agree with his policies respected him as President.
TSD: Did you ever consider running for office yourself… or would you?
JAB: I have a wonderful husband who has been totally supportive of my career – including the long hours and time away from home. His one request was that I never subject him and my son to running for office.
So, no. I have never considered it. This year I celebrate my Twenty-fifth wedding anniversary so I know I made the right choice!
TSD: From your earliest days as a caseworker for Senator Roth, you’ve spent a career working on federal entitlement, health and welfare issues leading up to your appointment heading Social Security. Are we at a true crisis point with these programs and haven’t we seen this coming for some time?
JAB: Let me put on my former Social Security Commissioner “hat” to answer this one.
The first warning from the Social Security Board of Trustees came in 1995 when the Annual Trustee Report warned that the system would become insolvent in the 2040’s. Although the precise year of Social Security’s fiscal deficit has moved a few years with each passing report, the fact is, we have known for over fifteen years that the system is unsustainable without changes.
Currently, the Social Security Actuary projects a present value $5.3 Trillion unfunded obligation. That means, it would take another $5.3 Trillion dollars today – earning interest – to pay scheduled benefits for the next 75 years.
According to the most recent Social Security Trustee Report, the Trust Funds now are valued at $2.4 trillion. That Trust Fund balance is the result of years of taking in more in payroll taxes than has been spent on benefits. That excess revenue has been used – as required by law – to purchase special issue government securities.
It’s similar to when an individual purchases government savings bonds. You pay money for the bond and the government then uses that money. When the bond comes due, the government must make good on the value of the bond. So, Social Security has purchased securities – which means the government has used that money – and when Social Security needs to cash in the bond – so to speak – the government must come up with the cash.
That’s why the problem is so enormous. First of all, $2.4 trillion in assets doesn’t equal $5.3 Trillion in projected obligations. Second, when it comes time for the government to make good on the $2.4 trillion in bonds, it will put even further strain on the national fiscal situation given the current level of debt and deficits – or so-called draconian measures will have to be taken in terms of cuts in federal spending.
I’m not suggesting the government will default on the Trust Fund but rather that it won’ be easy – fiscally speaking.
I think the best way to describe the Social Security shortfall is in terms of the payroll tax gap. Let me explain – the current unfunded obligation – that $5.3 trillion – equals 1.92 percentage points in payroll taxes. In other words, if the Social Security tax were increased 1.92 percentage points or about 15% today for both employers and employees, there would be sufficient funds to pay benefits for the next 75 years. But in 75 years, we will be in the same financial position we are today – facing another shortfall.
As I said, since the mid 90’s, The Social Security Trustees have warned in every annual Trustee Report of the looming shortfall. Although the payroll gap has varied from 1.6 to 2% and the dates for using the Trust Fund have varied a few years, every report has made clear that the longer we wait to take action, the more severe the action will need to be.
It’s analogous to a family saving money for college. If they start when the child is born and put a little away each year, It’s a lot more easier than waiting until the child is a junior in high school and they only have 2 years to save for tuition. Obviously, the long-term savings requires much less as a percent of income than the short term savings. The same is true for Social Security. We’ve already lost 15 years through inaction, we can’t afford to lose anymore.
TSD: What do you make of Paul Ryan and the House Republicans’ plan?
JAB: Without getting mired in the technical details, let me say, we have to start somewhere. The increasing deficit, debt and interest on the debt have reached a critical point. Whether Congressman Ryan’s particular approach is THE right answer, I don’t know. But I do know this. He deserves a lot of credit for putting a proposal forward. Rather than criticizing and carping with political rhetoric, I think detractors would be well-advised to get serious about following the Republican lead to address our fiscal crisis.
TSD: And President Obama’s approach?
Again, without getting into the details, I think what has been described as class warfare vis a vis taxing our way out of the problem is not a sustainable path. I’m reminded of my favorite Margaret Thatcher quote, “The problem with Socialism is eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
The incredible increases in government spending over the last several years are now imbedded in the so-called “Current Spending” levels of the Federal budget. That increasing spending trend must not only be stopped it must be reversed by going back to previous spending levels. The specifics for accomplishing that will require serious and earnest bi-partisan discussion, debate and leadership.
TSD: A question on management: You led a department responsible for nearly 40% of US Government expenditure serving 150 million Americans (62,000 employees and some 13,000 field offices). A massive bureaucracy. How do you establish yourself as the leader of an organization like that and make change happen? How do you incentivize people to work better and more efficiently in that kind of setting?
JAB: As Commissioner of Social Security I was privileged to lead an agency of exceptionally dedicated and hard-working employees. Many – like myself – were “boomers” who responded to President’s Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country.”
As a result, using a military analogy — my father was in the Army in World War II and Korea–, at Social Security, there was a never a question that we were going to “take the hill.” So the biggest challenge was making sure I picked the right “hill.”
When leading an agency, I have always been guided by two quotes: General Colin Powell’s quote, “The art of leadership is accomplishing what management says is impossible” and Emily Dickinson’s poem “Dwell in Possibility.”
I made it clear from my entry to Social Security that I did not take the position of Commissioner to manage the status quo. When I assumed the post, I already had a vision for what I thought needed to be accomplished regarding improving service to the public that was grounded in my knowledge and experience in the issues, and I involved people throughout the agency in developing the solutions and plan of action.
In sum, my experience at every agency I have run is if you know what you know what you are talking about – the policy issue side of my brain we already talked about – and you develop a clear vision of what you want to accomplish, and you respect the people you are working with as individuals and their expertise, great things can be accomplished.
Finally, my grandmother taught me a long time ago to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To put it simple – respect, common courtesy and recognition of hard work.
TSD: Senator Roth was viewed as a conservative in his day, and while he fervently supported lower taxes and smaller government, he also sought to improve the government, to make it more efficient and less wasteful, to make its output more productive and measurable. He was also an environmentalist. What do you think he would make of the Tea Party and people like the Pauls, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman?
JAB: As then Senator Biden said when the new St. George’s bridge was dedicated and named in Senator’s Roth’s memory, it was eminently fitting and appropriate as Bill Roth was a bridge builder.
When Senator Roth served as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he had more bills voted out of Committee on a unanimous basis than any of his counterpart Committee Chairmen.
So, although his views on the issues were well-grounded in the principles he believed in, he was also committed to moving America forward. That meant exercising true leadership by bringing everyone to the table, honestly and openly considering their disparate views, and finding a reasonable compromise. So the issue isn’t what he would make of them –but would he would do to work with them to benefit our country.
I firmly believe America would be well served by more of that kind of leadership.
TSD: How often are you back in Delaware and what are your favorite haunts?
JAB: I get back to Delaware as often as possible. One of my best friends lives in Newark so I always have a welcome place to stay when I come home to Wilmington which I have done for get-togethers with friends, speeches, business, and, of course, high school reunions. Lucky for me, one of my best friends, who is also from Wilmington, retired to Rehoboth. Her house is one block from the beach – need I say more!