Social Security close to gaining independence

March 03, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed legislation yesterday to make the Social Security Administration independent, a move that advocates say would give the Woodlawn-based agency greater visibility and insulate it from political interference.

The bill now goes to the House, which passed similar legislation by wide margins in 1986 and 1992. Those bills died in the Senate, but the ascension of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York to the chairmanship of the Finance Committee last year changed the political dynamics, paving the way for yesterday's action.

Mr. Moynihan, who for 10 years has sponsored legislation to make the agency independent, lobbied hard for approval of the bill, which was passed by a voice vote.

With 65,000 employees, including 14,200 in the Baltimore area, Social Security is the largest agency in the Department of Health and Human Services. It sends out 42 million checks a month and maintains earnings records for 132 million wage earners

Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, testified against the Moynihan bill last fall. A department spokesman, Victor Zonana, said after yesterday's action: "We think Social Security beneficiaries would be best served by continued integration of Social Security with other department programs, including Medicare."

Before passing the bill, the Senate attached an amendment by Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine intended to force drug addicts and alcoholics who use Social Security disability payments to feed their habits to get treatment.

While the bill would remove Social Security from Ms. Shalala's department, the Woodlawn agency would still be subject to the supervision and budget control of the White House. Under the Moynihan bill, a commissioner appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate would run the agency.

Legislation pending in the House provides for a three-member board to set policy, with an executive director to run the agency, an arrangement that advocates say would give the agency more independence than under the Moynihan bill.

Supporters of the legislation say it would give the agency greater visibility in government circles because it would not be buried in a Cabinet department focused on health care.

But opponents argue that Social Security would lose an important advocate without the health secretary at the Cabinet table to argue its case.

Although Ms. Shalala testified against Mr. Moynihan's bill, there was speculation that the White House would not try to block its passage. An administration official said it is doubtful that the White House would "go to war over this" because it does not want to antagonize Mr. Moynihan, whose support it needs on health care and welfare reform.

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