Independence for Social Security

May 10, 1994

As part of his drive for congressional passage of health care reform, President Clinton has given his approval to a plan to make the huge Social Security Administration headquartered at Woodlawn an independent agency. This will be welcomed by most of the 14,200 employees stationed at the Baltimore suburb. For years they have felt their agency was lost in the labyrinths of the monstrous Department of Health and Human Services. The result has been deplorable working conditions and serious understaffing that may be one explanation for poor service to citizens and poor oversight of disbursements, particularly disability benefits.

Whether independence is the right remedy for the SSA is a matter of dispute in Washington. But there is no dispute that the president, given the choice of going along with HHS Secretary Donna Shalala or appeasing Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chose the latter. In political terms, it was a no-brainer. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Moynihan holds a key position in determining the shape of health-care legislation as it moves to the floor of the Senate and later into a Senate-House conference committee.

Senator Moynihan has long been Congress' chief critic of the Eisenhower administration's decision to put Social Security in a department with a bigger budget than the Pentagon. He has argued that this setup denies an important agency direct access to the president and has left SSA in the hands of a bureaucracy he describes as "brain dead" and lacking in "distinctive energy."

This is disputed by Carol Cox Wait, director of the private watchdog Committee for a Responsible Budget, who argues that setting up another layer of government will give retirees, one of the most powerful of special-interest groups, even more clout in the corridors of government. The result, she says, could be pressure for even more generous benefits when the real need is for restraint to put Social Security on a sounder actuarial basis.

With President Clinton on board for SSA independence, however, there will be no stopping this change. It has passed both houses in slightly different form and is likely to whiz toward passage. Few incumbents wish to anger the golden age lobby in an election year.

For the Baltimore area, the president's decision is strictly a plus. It could set the stage for refurbishments at the Woodlawn complex, whose condition has been criticized by Ms. Shalala. When they get their independence, Social Security employees will have an opportunity to show they can make the improvements their agency so obviously needs.

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