WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration would be less subject to "political whims" -- and employees would have more job security -- if a bill passed Monday by the House becomes law, say advocates for federal workers and SSA.
The Bush administration opposed the measure.
The bill, which was approved overwhelmingly (350-8), would make SSA a separate agency, independent of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As an independent agency, SSA could lobby Congress directly for funding rather than rely on the administration to make the case for it, said Chapin Wilson, chief lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees.
Championed by Maryland's Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, the bill would establish a three-member, bipartisan oversight board that which would appoint a director to manage SSA.
Currently, SSA is headed by a commissioner nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Under the bill, the board would be appointed by the president but the panel could not have more than two members from the same political party.
Also, the appointees' six-year terms would be staggered so that a new person would be appointed every two years.
This configuration is designed to prevent a direct overlap with the term of any president and preserve the bipartisan nature of the group.
Bipartisan leadership would "isolate and protect the staff and beneficiaries from political manipulation," said Janice Lachance, an AFGE spokeswoman.
"The priority of the agency will be to deliver top-quality services . . . and not be part of a president's extreme philosophy, no matter what extreme it is," Ms. Lachance said.
SSA staff was cut 26 percent between 1985 and 1990 under a Reagan Administration plan. Since then, staff has increased slightly, but President Bush has asked for another cut in fiscal 1993.
The combination of fewer employees and more beneficiaries has caused a seven-month backlog in processing disability claims applications and other severe problems in customer services, according to federal worker unions and some SSA-watchers.
HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan has recommended that President Bush veto the independent agency bill if it passes. However, Mr. Bush may be subject to election-year pressures on Social Security issues.
Two bills pending in the House and Senate would exempt SSA from funding ceilings established in the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act.
Conventional wisdom holds that the quality of the federal work force is inferior to that of the private sector, and that the skill level of public sector employees is declining.
But a new study by the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board indicates that conventional wisdom may be wrong.
The study by the Advisory Committee on Federal Work Force Quality Assessment, which is made up of researchers from OPM and the board, indicates that the skill levels of at least some categories of federal employees are on a par with those of private sector workers.
Evaluations of supervisors, engineers, scientists, computer specialists and procurement personnel indicate that "the quality of these employees is not generally deficient."
However, the federal sector requires a larger percentage of highly skilled and technically oriented workers than the private sector, the report said, so better skills will be required in the future.
The federal government also will need to be more competitive in salaries and benefits and to improve its image as an employer as fewer highly skilled people become available to fill an increasing number of technical jobs, the report said.
The "Federal Workplace Quality: Measurement and Improvement" report was released this week.
The committee is touting the study, which took two years to complete, as the first scientific comparison of the quality of civil servants and public sector employees.
As such, it is the first viable tool to address allegations of widespread incompetence and target specific methods for improving the quality of the federal work force.