House enacts bill giving independence to the troubled Social Security agency zTC

August 12, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Fifty-nine years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Depression-era legislation creating the Social Security system, Congress approved a bill yesterday to make independent the agency that touches virtually every American.

With 65,000 employees, including 14,200 in the Baltimore area, the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration will become the ninth-largest federal department. It spends more than any other department, most of that $322 billion in benefits it pays annually to 48 million recipients. Social Security also collects taxes on the wages of 135 million.

It will begin its new life next March burdened with problems that range from a shortage of personnel to a staggering backlog of applications for disability benefits.

Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services, and Shirley S. Chater, the Social Security commissioner, issued a joint statement yesterday that said, "Independence will provide a special opportunity to build America's confidence in Social Security."

They apparently were alluding to public skepticism about the long-term stability of Social Security. The National Academy of Social Insurance said in May that a Gallup survey showed that only 30 percent of Americans are confident that Social Security retirement benefits will be available for them. Other polls have produced similar results.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security, has frequently cited such poll results, as well as leadership turmoil at Social Security -- with its 12 commissioners in 17 years -- and the agency's lack of visibility in a huge Cabinet department as reasons for making the agency independent.

Efforts to make Social Security independent gained momentum after a commission recommended the move 10 years ago. But various administrations have been opposed.

This year, at a time when his help was needed on President

Clinton's health care legislation, Senator Moynihan persuaded Mr. Clinton to support the measure. Then, through his Finance Committee chairmanship, the New York Democrat steered the bill to Senate approval.

The House, which had passed similar legislation before, approved the measure in May. Yesterday, the House, by a vote of 431 to 0, enacted the final legislation that had been negotiated with the Senate. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill, which takes effect March 31.

A clamp-down on drug addicts and alcoholics who receive Social Security benefits is included.

With the rolls expanding rapidly, Congress has heard numerous complaints that some recipients were using payments to feed their addictions, sometimes to the point of death, and that the agency was doing a dismal job of administering the rules for treating and monitoring addicts.

The law expands those requirements and also limits addicts to 36 months of payments, raising the prospect that thousands could be kicked off the rolls in three years.

The degree of actual "independence" that Social Security will have is not clear, although the commissioner will have more than Ms. Chater now has.

The president appoints the agency's commissioner to a six-year term, subject to confirmation by the Senate. Commissioners can be removed only in case of "neglect of duty or malfeasance in office." Currently, a Social Security commissioner can be replaced by an incoming president.

Originally, the agency was headed by a board that reported to the president. But in 1939 Social Security was swept into the Federal Security Agency, a predecessor of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The legislation requires the president to appoint a commissioner and deputy commissioner within 60 days. Although there has been Capitol Hill speculation that Ms. Chater might not get the job, a White House aide seemed to end that yesterday.

"We like her," the aide said. "She'll be there."

Ms. Chater's brief tenure has been marked by controversy. Social Security is reeling from an explosive increase in applications for disability payments and has a backlog of about 1 million cases.

The agency has been criticized for paying $32 million in bonuses to two-thirds of its employees.

Capitol Hill aides, who refused to be quoted by name, say Ms. Chater has been slow to come to grips with the agency's problems and has not been a forceful advocate.

Some say Senator Moynihan has been disappointed in Ms. Chater's leadership and wants the first commissioner under the new law to be more aggressive. Last week, however, he described Ms. Chater on the Senate floor as "very able."

Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., the Indiana Democrat who heads the Social Security subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he is pleased with her performance and has urged Mr. Clinton to reappoint her.

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