WASHINGTON -- The House overwhelmingly passed legislation yesterday to overhaul the Social Security Administration, a move advocates said is needed to restore public confidence in the agency and protect its policies from political forces.
The bill, which passed 413 to 0, would remove Social Security from the Department of Health and Human Services and make it an independent agency. Supporters said that change would give the Woodlawn-based agency a higher profile and insulate it against political changes in the federal government.
The bill, approved by the Senate in March and now going to a conference committee to work out differences, also would place new restrictions on payments made to the alcoholics and drug addicts who receive federal disability checks as a result of their addictions.
One of the provisions would allow drug abusers whose disabilities are clearly linked to their addictions to collect disability payments for only three years, rather than indefinitely. "This is central to ensure that addicts have an incentive to break their habits," said Rep. Wally Herger, a California Republican.
The measure also would require that disability payments not be made directly to drug addicts, but to a third party such as a nonprofit community group or a friend or family member.
The bill would tighten the requirement that drug addicts seek treatment as a condition of disability benefits. Disability recipients who failed to comply with the treatment requirement would be subject to suspension of their payments.
Supporters hope the new restrictions would curtail abuse of disability payments, which congressional investigators have found are a major source of cash for drug addicts and alcoholics.
With the attempts at protecting the agency from politicians and unscrupulous recipients, backers hope the bill will begin to restore a sense of trust in a Social Security system that many Americans believe will go broke before they can benefit from it.
"Nearly one-third of all Americans don't think that Social Security will survive," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Florida Republican. "Today we have a chance to help restore a level of confidence in the system."
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 workers.
HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala had testified against making the agency independent during Senate debate over the measure. She has since withdrawn her objections, and President Clinton has said he would sign the measure.
While the bill would remove Social Security from HHS, the agency still would be subject to the supervision and budget control of the White House.
The bill passed by the House provides for a three-member board to set Social Security policy, with an executive director to run the agency -- an arrangement advocates say would give the agency necessary independence.
Under the Senate bill passed in March, a commissioner appointed bythe president and confirmed by the Senate would run the agency. The differences in the two measures must be ironed out by conferees from the two houses.
Supporters of the proposal say that making the agency independent would give it greater visibility in government circles because it would not be buried in a Cabinet department focused on health care.
They also said the new structure will offer the agency some protection from political changes that have affected its policies in the past. For instance, thousands of disability recipients were thrown off the rolls in the early 1980s as the Reagan administration made efforts to reduce the federal deficit.
Supporters say that if the agency is free of many of its political concerns, it would be able to provide better service.