UI professor finally taking his seat

CHAMPAIGN – After nearly two years of waiting, University of Illinois Professor Jeffrey Brown has finally taken his seat on the Social Security Advisory Board.

President Bush nominated Brown to the seven-member board in January 2005, but his confirmation was delayed until a Democratic nominee to the board could also be approved.

In the meantime, membership on the board fell to three, leaving it without a quorum. So in October, Bush made a recess appointment, naming Brown to the position immediately.

Brown, a UI associate professor of finance who was once an economist for the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, said the advisory board provides oversight for Social Security's retirement, disability and supplemental security income programs.

"It's a seven-member bipartisan board that's supposed to provide advice to Congress, the president and the Social Security commissioner on all aspects of Social Security policy," he said.

Brown said the board can help focus attention on the fact that Social Security has a long-term financing problem that needs to be addressed.

"I have no intention of using my position on the board to push one type of solution over another," he said. "I'll be happy if we just get the debate reignited and get people to come to the table to talk about it."

Brown said the board will devote time to other aspects of Social Security, which has 50 million beneficiaries and 160 million people paying taxes into the program.

"It's an extremely well-run efficient organization, but there's always a way to improve things," he said.

One aspect that may deserve more consideration is the process for handling disability claims. When someone becomes disabled, the process of applying for benefits can be long if the application is initially denied, he said.

"In some cases, it can be a couple years before a person receives benefits," Brown said. "I can't help but think we can find ways to improve that process."

Another topic for study may be whether the nation is appropriately rewarding – or at least not penalizing – people who want to stay in the work force in their later years. Life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and the current system can sometimes "inefficiently" encourage people to retire early, he said.

Brown said he believes Washington policymakers know in their hearts there's a long-term problem involving the growth of Social Security and Medicare. But in recent years, the issue became too politicized for the two parties to talk about it.

"What we need is some sort of change in the political environment that allows us to have this discussion again," he said.

Brown's appointment means he'll likely be making monthly trips to Washington for advisory board meetings. Within a week after being sworn in at the Champaign Social Security office, Brown participated in his first board meeting via conference call.

Three of the board's members are nominated by the president, two by the House and two by the Senate. The board's chairman, Syl Schieber, is an economist associated with the Watson Wyatt Worldwide benefits consulting firm. The other two members are former U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly and former Social Security Commissioner Dorcas Hardy.

Nominated by Bush and awaiting confirmation are Mark Warshawsky, who was formerly the Treasury's assistant secretary for economic policy, and Dana Bilyeu, who heads the Public Employees' Retirement System of Nevada. The remaining appointment has not been announced.

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