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Hearing of the Subcomm. on Social Security of the House Ways and Means Comm.-Social Security Administration Service Delivery Budget Plan

Location: Washington, DC

Federal News Service February 26, 2004 Thursday
Copyright 2004 Federal News Service, Inc.
Federal News Service

February 26, 2004 Thursday







REP. E. CLAY SHAW JR (R-FL): Good morning.

Today, our Subcommittee welcomes the Commissioner of Social Security, Jo Anne Barnhart, to review the Agency's updated Service Delivery Budget Plan for fiscal year 2005. That agenda may be a little bit expanded this morning due to some comments made before the Budget by Mr. Greenspan yesterday.

The five-year Service Delivery Budget Plan was first submitted to the Office of Management and Budget with the agency's fiscal year 2004 budget request. Integrated with the five-year Strategic Plan, the Service Delivery Budget Plan provides a framework to address the challenges facing the agency and to improve public service.

Recently, the Commissioner advanced two initiatives from the Service Delivery Budget Plan. First, just last month, the agency began rolling out a new electronic disability claims filing process. That's something this committee has talked endlessly about, and I am delighted to hear that is well way. Converting from paper to electronic folders will eliminate delays resulting from locating, mailing and organizing paper folders as a disability claim moves through the system. Second, this past September the Commissioner premiered her proposals to improve the disability determination process at a hearing of this Subcommittee. Today, I look forward to hearing the Commissioner's update regarding the progress of both of these important initiatives.

In addition to improving the disability determination process, the updated fiscal year 2005 Service Delivery Budget Plan calls for SSA's 64,000 employees nationwide to: process more than 6 million claims for benefits; issue 18 million new and replacement Social Security cards; post 267 million earning-items to workers' earning records; and pay monthly benefits to more than 52 million people. These core workloads have grown significantly in the last year and will increase steadily with the aging of the baby boom generation.

In order to support these and other activities the Service Delivery Budget Plan, the President's fiscal year 2005 budget requests $9 billion for Social Security's administrative expenses, and it is 6.6 percent increase over last year and among the highest increase for all Federal agencies. I want to note that the administrative expenses of the Social Security Administration represent less than 2 percent of the Agency's total outlays-an administration to benefits ratio that is much better than even the most efficient nonprofit organizations.

The President's Budget also requested an additional $100 million for a Medicare reform contingency reserve. This reserve, financed by the Medicare trust funds, will ensure that all eligible persons seeking benefits under the new Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 can be served if the original appropriation for implementation is exhausted.

Many people are unaware that the new Medicare prescription drug law requires the SSA to provide substantial administrative support to the Medicare program including: identifying low-income Medicare beneficiaries for enrollment in the new prescription drug benefit, making low-income subsidy determinations, calculating Part B premiums for high-income beneficiaries, and withholding premiums appropriate to beneficiaries' selected prescription drug plans.

Finally, the President's budget reserves not less than $561 million for continuing disability reviews. These essential reviews protect the integrity of the trust fund and the general fund by avoiding erroneous payments and combating fraud.

The President has done his part by requesting the budget and will allow the agency to keep its commitment to seniors, individuals with disabilities, and survivors. Even in this tight budget environment, Congress must fulfill its responsibility to Social Security's beneficiaries.

I have amended my opening statement in this way: We are here today to discuss the commissioner's service-delivery plan for Social Security. However, there's been a great deal of media attention regarding Federal Reserve's Chairman Alan Greenspan's testimony before the House Budget Committee yesterday on how to extend the life of Social Security, which I think it was quite appropriate to address at this time.

In a statement issued yesterday, I made a number of key points: Chairman Greenspan is right to point out that the demographic challenges facing Social Security and Medicare. Modern medicine is enabling people to live longer and families are having fewer children. In the longer run, that means fewer workers supporting each retiree. And it's important to keep in mind, Social Security, right now, is a pay-as-you-go program. Chairman Greenspan is also right that tax increases are not the answer to securing Social Security in the future. We cannot risk slowing economic growth.

However, I respectfully disagree with the Chairman's recommendation to cut promised benefits by reducing the cost-of-living adjustment and increasing the retirement age. Those proposals are not the right answer.

My message to Seniors and those nearing retirement: You will receive nothing less than 100 percent of what you have been promised. Your benefits are safe, your benefits are secure. There is a viable alternative that doesn't require any tax increases or benefit cuts: Allow workers to save today through voluntary personal accounts that back Social Security with real economic assets. These accounts would help workers build a retirement nest egg and delivery real retirement security.

My Social Security Guarantee Plus Plan, which is H.R. 75, illustrates how personal accounts will ensure payment of full-promise benefits, and even provide enhanced benefits without tax increases, and without individual investment risk.

The social security debate will and should continue as Americans, particularly, younger Americans, learn more about Social Security's challenges and options to strengthen the program's I now look forward to working with my subcommittee colleagues and the commissioner to develop legislation that ensures the Social Security Administration has the funding it needs to efficiently serve the American people. Social Security programs deserve no less.


REP. XAVIER BECERRA (D-CA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Commissioner, good to see you again. Thank you very much. I especially thank you for all the work you've been doing, and congratulations on some of the successes that we've seen over the last couple of years.

Growing caseload so it's always tough, and so please tell all the folks that work at SSA that we say thank you.

MS. BARNHART: I will do that.

REP. BECERRA: In dealing day to day with folks in Los Angeles with some of the SSA workers, you see the tremendous amount of work that they have to do and oftentimes for people who are, in some cases, in very desperate straits, so we thank you and we look forward to continuing to work with you and your folks locally as well.

I want to go back for a moment, before I go back into some of the issues of the backlog and so forth, to what was said more globally about the whole issue of Social Security and Chairman Greenspan's comments. Again, what he said was not new to anyone. Those of us who have had to deal with Social Security and who have had to try to figure out how to best protect it have known about this, and so it's not a startling bit of news. But it is to the average American who's surviving on the $935 or so, or $38 or whatever, the average Social Security benefit that Americans who are retired receive to hear that Chairman Greenspan is saying we're either going to have to cut benefits, raise taxes-payroll taxes, or increase the retirement age for people who are on Social Security. And for them I think this is a startling revelation.

Let me ask you something. You're the commissioner for SSA, for Social Security Administration. Chairman Greenspan has spoken. He has said that we can't-we're not going to tolerate this. There will be a break in the system and it's going to hurt people. Are you planning to advise the president on whether or not he should increase taxes or cut benefits or raise the retirement age?

MS. BARNHART: What I've been trying to do since I became commissioner is to make sure that our policy operations can augment the work of our actuary-and we have an independent actuary office, as I know you're familiar, who does estimates for Congress and other interested parties on the effects of various proposals. And what I've been trying to do is make sure that we're in a position that we'll be able to provide the appropriate analysis of the effects of the various proposals, for example the proposal that the chairman has introduced --

REP. BECERRA: But, Ms. Commissioner, let me stop you for a second. I understand we'll have proposals that are out there, but right now we heard Chairman Greenspan said not 30 years from now, not three years from now, but today we know that there is a crisis building if we don't act. And so my question is, the president-remember in 1993 -- what was the-I have this quote here somewhere. 1993 in the State of the Union address the president said, "We will not ignore, we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, other presidents, other generations. We'll focus on them with clarity and courage."

REP. : Two thousand.

REP. BECERRA: Sorry, 2003 State of the Union address that's what he said. If we're going to focus on them with clarity and courage now and we're not going to pass them on, we have to act today. So what should the president do? Should he, as Chairman Greenspan said, cut benefits to current retirees or our future retirees?

MS. BARNHART: Well, obviously cutting benefits is one of the possibilities. I'm certainly not saying that's something I endorse. As you said --

REP. BECERRA: Okay, because I want to just know what-if you endorse anything because I want to know what the president will try to say-or how he will respond to Chairman Greenspan.

MS. BARNHART: Cutting --

REP. BECERRA: So if you're not going to endorse cutting benefits, are you going to endorse increasing taxes for --

MS. BARNHART: Cutting benefits, raising taxes-what I meant by saying that is that in terms of looking at the options that are there, cutting benefits, raising taxes, raising the retirement age, creating personal accounts, which is obviously something the president has talked about that the chairman and others have submitted legislation to do, those are all possibilities that I believe need to be-we need to look at the trade off between --

REP. BECERRA: I understand all that, Ms. Commissioner. And I know this is a difficult issue, but is there anything you would propose today of those four options that you mentioned-cutting benefits to Social Security recipients, increasing the payroll tax for people who pay into Social Security, raising the retirement age before people can start to collect from Social Security, or using privatized Social Security where you have private accounts-are you going to recommend to him either of those four proposals?

MS. BARNHART: Let me say I don't have a proposal to recommend to the president, if that's what you're asking me.

REP. BECERRA: Okay then. Let me-then I won't pursue it --


REP. BECERRA: I understand that we'll have to come up with a solution. Let me ask you more specifically about the budget that you have now. You've done tremendous work to try to reduce the backlogs, which include more than a million people in these backlogs trying to get their benefits and so forth. My understanding is that you're estimating-your projections are that you can reduce the initial determination level backlog from-or keep it steady at about 582,000 cases?


REP. BECERRA: And your projection is that you'll be able to drop the backlog at the hearing level from 586,000 cases to 550,000 cases, which is a whopping number of-you know, over a million people backlogged, waiting. If your budget is the president's budget, which is $445 million less than what you had requested, can you keep those projections for this coming fiscal year?

MS. BARNHART: We believe that we can keep all the projections except for the continuing disability-well, the continuing disability --

REP. BECERRA: So what will --

MS. BARNHART: -- (cross talk.)

REP. BECERRA: -- you not do if you don't get $445 million that you requested?

MS. BARNHART: We'll do a couple of hundred thousand less re- determinations, as well as several hundred thousand less continuing disability reviews. We have actually identified some carryover funds that we have available for information and technology that we have-that are unexpended that will help make up for part of that. There are some issues related to our infrastructure in terms of office improvements that we won't do, and sort of the other objects category. There are a variety of other things like that. But the major effect-the major programmatic effect is the reduction in the number of CDRs and re-determinations.

REP. BECERRA: And the CDRs are-those, again, are disability beneficiaries who are still trying-who say they're still unable to work, those determinations will-you'll probably have to slow down on those, and the re-determinations for SSI, Supplemental Security Income, which evaluates whether an SSI recipient is sufficiently poor to qualify for the benefits. Those populations will probably not see the accelerated effort to try to reduce those backlogs as a result of less funding?

MS. BARNHART: In terms of the CDRs and re-determinations, that-we --

REP. BECERRA: Well, hopefully we can work with you to try to help you get the moneys you need so folks who are in need-we're not talking about wealthy folks-have an opportunity to go through the processing. Now, hopefully we don't expect all the folks who work for you to try to do even more with less resources. So we hope to work with you.

Mr. Chairman, you've been gracious with the time.

And, Commissioner, always-I apologize if I asked you some questions which were tough, but we're going to have to answer them and I just wanted to find out if we had moved along any further within the administration in trying to resolve those.

Thank you very much.

And, Mr. Chairman, I thank you.

REP. SHAW: Thank you, Mr. Becerra. I'd like to point out here, and I think this is important, the only plan that's out there right now that I know of that has a bipartisan support as far as sponsors cuts benefits in the out years. I don't believe it's necessary to cut benefits. I also would point out, and I would love to be corrected on this, I don't know of any Democratic plan that's out there, not one single plan. So we have the once great party that developed Social Security under Franklin Delano Roosevelt is missing in action.

REP. BECERRA: Mr. Chairman, if you would yield on that?

REP. SHAW: Yes, sir.

REP. BECERRA: If you recall, back when President Clinton was still in office he did propose a solution that took us quite a bit a ways. It would have extended the solvency for Social Security well beyond 2045, the year 2045 --

REP. SHAW: And he talked about private accounts at that time.

REP. BECERRA: Well, he didn't talk about so much private accounts. He talked about supplementing Social Security with individual accounts, which you can call private accounts, but not private accounts that would take the money out of Social Security to put it into private accounts.

REP. SHAW: I visited --

REP. BECERRA: It would have supplemented what already goes into Social Security with what could be considered private accounts.

REP. SHAW: I visited with President Clinton with regard to the-which was then the Archer-Shaw plan, which is very similar but not identical to the one that we have today. His administration under Social Security scored it as saving Social Security for all time, and as did the Bush administration under the one that we have done now. So there are plans out there that protect the solvency in the long run of Social Security, do not raise taxes and preserve the benefits. As a matter of fact, I would invite the members of this committee to closely examine the plan that I have out there because we actually add to the benefit structure, and it's a good plan and it does work. But we're going to have to start working together.

REP. POMEROY: Mr. Chairman, will you --

REP. SHAW: The president told me that if the leadership here in the House, the Democrat leadership, would go along with me, that he would help us and get it through. You know, President Clinton missed a golden opportunity to leave that as his legacy. But there wasn't the will to do it here in the House among the Democrat leadership and he wasn't about ready to start down that road without the backing of his own party.

REP. POMEROY: Mr. Chairman, I'd love to respond --

(Cross talk.)

REP. POMEROY: I believe that it was unfortunate-any time we've had an opportunity to fix this in a bipartisan manner and missed it, it's unfortunate. But the more recent administrative culpability I believe falls on this administration, who took a situation where we had a budget surplus and drove instead an agenda that included very steep tax cuts, which have now pushed us to historic deficits. And I don't think there's any disagreement by economists evaluating this matter that dealing with our ongoing-making-meeting our ongoing commitments to Social Security and Medicare is made much more difficult when our fiscal situation is in tatters with historic deficits, than it was when we had a historic opportunity with surplus. And so basically when you impose-when you pass tax cuts that drive deficits to historic levels, you put into play a situation where Alan Greenspan says you have to cut Social Security, and that's just --

REP. SHAW: Let me quote from Mr. Greenspan's testimony where he said, "Social Security faces financial challenges because of Democratic"-"demographic" -- (laughter) --

REP. POMEROY: Thank you for the correction, Mr. Chairman.

REP. SHAW: "Demographic trends and not tax relief. Social Security trustees have been warning us of the program's impending cash flow deficit for years, including during the Clinton administration and well before President Bush enacted tax relief." I'd like to get back on the subject of this hearing if I might. I think we've-sort of a toss up as to how much time we spend on this.

Mr. Becerra.

REP. BECERRA: Mr. Chairman, I'll also keep my questions down to just one as well.

Commissioner, the Social Security actuaries every year in the report that is submitted by the Social Security trustees give us a sense of what we can expect for Social Security long term. Traditionally we look at a 75 year timeframe. Correct?

MS. BARNHART: Correct.

REP. BECERRA: So while we can't be certain-no one can be certain what's going to happen tomorrow, but we try to do the best we can to project out over 75 years so we can determine more or less where we're heading with Social Security, whether it will be solvent, what we need to do, make changes. In that report the trustees have said in the past that what we're looking at over the next 75 years is a bit of a deficit with regard to Social Security in its ability to pay out, given the number of people who will be retired. We're talking well into the future now. According to the reports, if they're still accurate, we're looking at something in the order of about a $3.8-$4 trillion deficit over the next 75 years if you talk about it in present dollars.

MS. BARNHART: That's correct.

REP. BECERRA: If you would be able to determine what a dollar is worth today, next year and 75 years, our deficit-if we were to try to take care of it right now, if we could plunk down the money and take care of the deficit in benefits versus beneficiaries' requirements, we'd have to plunk down about $3.8 billion today-trillion dollars, excuse me, trillion dollars today to make sure that every single beneficiary from today for 75 years will receive the benefits they expect. Correct?

MS. BARNHART: Currently -- (inaudible) -- and the estimate depends-it ranges actually between $3.5 to $3.8 trillion.

REP. BECERRA: Right, right. A lot of factors involved: how well the economy does in the next 75 years, et cetera.

If you translate that in terms of our gross domestic product, our capacity-economic capacity, it's about .73 percent of our GDP. That's sort of the estimate. I'm not sure if you're familiar with that translation?

MS. BARNHART: Yes, I am. Actually I am, yes.

REP. BECERRA: My understanding is that the president's tax cuts of 2001, 2003 and if you make them permanent, if you project those out over the next 75 years, the cost of those tax cuts, that totals somewhere between $8 to $10 trillion depending on-if you take care of the AMP (ph), try to make sure that we don't have too many people fall into the tax brackets and all these other concerns are sort of factored into this estimate of somewhere between $8 to $10 trillion in costs of the president's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, if you were to extend them permanently as he is proposing that we do. That in terms of GDP, if you want to translate it a different way-GDP is about 1.5 to 1.9 percent of GDP.

If those estimates are accurate, and I don't have-I have found no one to tell me they're not, the Social Security dilemma that we have is one-third the size of the cost over the same period of time of the president's tax cuts. And so if we were looking for a solution, couldn't we take a look at those tax cuts-which, if you take a look at the numbers, were skewed tremendously towards the very wealthy in this country and most of the folks who are receiving Social Security are skewed towards the very modest or lower income populations of our country. Wouldn't it make sense to reexamine those tax cuts that are going to cost us three times as much as the entire solvency problem for Social Security over the next 75 years?

MS. BARNHART: Mr. Chairman, as you --

REP. BECERRA: You've given me that title that I hope to have in the future, but I don't have right now.


MS. BARNHART: Mr. Becerra, as you've alluded to, I'm not an economist and I'm confident that there are probably factors built into the Social Security-the ongoing look at the actuarial balance of the system that take into account economic growth and what we expect to happen. And so for me to sit here and try and balance out those two things and suggest they're equivalent or not equivalent or the effect of one on the other reminds me actually of former Senator Bob Dole, an interview I saw him in once when he was asked a similar kind of economic analysis question, and I'm going to give you the same answer he gave which is, I think you'll have to find an economist to give you a wrong answer to that question.


REP. BECERRA: Thank you very much, Commissioner, I appreciate that.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

REP. SHAW: Okay, thank you. I mean, let me get a little clarity on this, Mr. Becerra. Are you saying that the answer to the pending Social Security deficit is to increase taxes?

REP. BECERRA: No, Mr. Chairman. If you were to not extend the tax cuts which the president and the Republican majority made, and after 10 years you would save yourself over the next 10 years about $2 trillion. And so we could go a long way in keeping Social Security from going into a real problem by not driving ourselves into a further fiscal problem of extending tax cuts, which all will agree are skewed towards the very wealthy. And so I think we have ways to deal with this. I, for example, would --

REP. SHAW: Well, tell that to people who are saving money on their marriage penalty. You know, this is --

REP. BECERRA: Well, that --

REP. SHAW: This seems to be the very wealthy. Well, tell them they're wealthy. You know --

REP. BECERRA: Mr. Chairman, I --

REP. SHAW: Those people are making $50,000-$60,000 a year that they're-and struggling to pay a mortgage and raising families, tell them that they should go back and we should sunset all of this stuff and let them start paying more taxes. I mean, this is not-Social Security-you've got to view this-in many respects I think the safest answer the commissioner just gave is look for economists to give you the wrong answer, but I think we can-we know certain facts that we can look at. Fifty-two percent of the deficit has been caused by the recession. We're working our way out of it. Mr. Greenspan and just about all the economists agree that the tax cuts that we put in place have made this recession shorter and shallower than it would have been without it. It has generated income and now we see the markets are going back up, we see the unemployment rate is falling, however, not fast enough. But 5.6 percent used to be-when I first came to Congress used to be considered as full employment. But we know we can do better and we're going to continue to do better, and those figures are continuing to go down as we want them to. But I think if we all of a sudden switch-take that tax cut away and do not extend it, I think we'll see a drop in the market which is going to be a drop in revenue to the federal government and this is not a good thing.

Also, and you have to look at Social Security as a standalone program, one that was designed to and has always held itself up and as a matter of fact it's masked the extent of the deficit ever since the inception of-ever since the unified budget, which was created in the '70s by President Johnson during the Vietnam War to mask the cost of the deficit being caused by the war. I still-and if you look-if you take the long view, you can see that we can save Social Security and we can save it and create a surplus and make it even a better program for our kids and grandkids, and don't even have to consider raising payroll taxes or dipping into general revenue. It can be done and I just keep reaching out to your side of the aisle. Tax increases are not the answer in saving Social Security.

REP. BECERRA: Mr. Chairman, if I may respond?

REP. SHAW: Certainly.

REP. BECERRA: There are no Democrats who are suggesting that we increase taxes. As I said, the tax cuts, if you extend them out, will cost as three times as much as it would cost to resolve the solvency question for Social Security. So you could do enormous good by taking a third of the tax cuts, which would benefit-are benefiting, for example, probably no more than about 10 percent of the wealthiest Americans, and you could leave the family making $50,000 completely intact with the tax cuts that took place and you would have that $50,000 a year family intact, you would have every Social Security beneficiary for the next 75 years, and probably beyond, knowing that he or she would not have to face increased retirement age, a cut in tax, a cut in benefits or an increase in taxes if we were to do something where I believe here we're just trying to share the pain and the gain.

Remember that we're asking soldiers day to day in Iraq to sacrifice and I don't know of any time in our history when we've had a president who's proposed going to war and cutting taxes for the wealthiest at the same time. And so I think there are ways we can do this, Mr. Chairman, that don't require us to cause pain to middle America. And I think we could get there and at the same time do for Commissioner Barnhart what she needs to make sure that Social Security beneficiaries, including those who are disabled, including those who are survivors of Social Security recipients, have an opportunity to receive the benefits they were expecting.

REP. SHAW: Well, your proposition does not take away the pending cliff that we are facing, even if every bit of the revenue generated by doing away with the tax cut-and it's arguable that it would not be --

REP. BECERRA: Actually, Mr. Chairman, I --

REP. SHAW: -- (cross talk) -- revenue generated because of the effect on the economy. President Kennedy. Look back at the tax cut during his administration. It ignited the economy and made it grow and it actually ended up producing more revenue.

REP. BECERRA: But the --

REP. SHAW: So I mean we've got to have an historical view of this, and we need also to have a long view. And this is what I keep talking about. You've got to view this program with a long view over 75 years, not just a quick fix by grabbing revenue out of general revenue in order to prop up the payments because --

REP. BECERRA: But, Mr. Chairman --

REP. SHAW: -- the pending deficit has been placed at about $25 trillion by two administrations now, and $25 trillion is not chump change. It's enough to sink this country if we depend upon general revenue to make up that deficit, or borrowing to make the payments. And it's not necessary. There are plans out there that solve the problem of solvency of Social Security and we should embrace them.

REP. BECERRA: But, Mr. Chairman, if you would yield for just a moment --

REP. SHAW: Very briefly. There's got to be an end to this.

REP. BECERRA: Well, hopefully we will get there in a bipartisan way to end this. But what I was proposing, what I suggested to you in taking just a third of the tax cuts tilted towards the wealthy, is not a band aid, it's not a temporary-it's a permanent fix. It resolves the --

REP. SHAW: But you're suggesting that we take-that we do away with the tax cuts and --

REP. BECERRA: No, not do away with.

REP. SHAW: -- funnel that money into Social Security?

REP. BECERRA: Not do away with.

REP. SHAW: All right. What happens to it when you funnel it into Social Security? Does it-do you put it in a vault somewhere?

REP. BECERRA: What you're doing is you're reducing the size of the national debt. By reducing the size of the national debt, the government's obligations into the future are more readily payable, including the debts we have to our retirees. But if you've got massive deficits and growing national debt, we're spending more and more money, as we are today spending a quarter of a trillion dollars simply to pay the interest on the national debt that goes to do nothing serviceable for anyone. But if we reduce the size of the national debt, we take care of the size of that interest payment and we also have moneys available to take care of our greatest obligations to the people who work so very hard.

So the solution-no one is saying to increase taxes, it's just saying let's be reasonable in how and where we cut those taxes, and take a portion of what went principally to very wealthy folks, including for example the estate tax which benefits only the top 2 percent wealthiest. There's no -- 98 percent of Americans will never benefit from the repeal of the $50 or $60 billion a year estate tax because it goes only to the top two wealthiest percent of Americans. So we can figure out ways to let the average American family, working very hard trying to figure out a way how to send their kids to college, without jeopardizing Social Security. And I think there are ways, bipartisan, for us to get there. But I want to make sure it's clear what I had proposed in taking only a third of the tax cuts would be a long-term, permanent solution, not a temporary band aid.

REP. SHAW: Well, I'll say to my friend from California, that I do have a great deal of respect for, one of the advantages in being chairman is that you get the last word. (Laughter.) And the last word is that you are wrong and I -- (laughter) -- and I will be happy to supply you with the figures proving that you are wrong.

REP. BECERRA: I look forward to receiving those figures.


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