Clinton SSA choice said set Budget official to get commissioner's post, president's aides say

Apfel is 'man of substance'

Appointee would replace Chater at tough time for agency

April 01, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Staff researcher Robert Gee contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- White House aides say President Clinton has settled on a new Social Security commissioner, a rumpled liberal known for his easy manner, strong organizational skills and detailed knowledge of the federal budget.

The choice to replace Shirley S. Chater is Kenneth S. Apfel, 48, a former aide to former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Apfel began with the Clinton administration as an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. He is now associate director for human resources at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

An announcement of Apfel's impending appointment has yet to be made. But two senior White House officials confirmed yesterday that the list of choices has been whittled down to one name -- Apfel's.

"You know things can go wrong at the last minute, but the staff recommendation was unanimous -- and the president likes Ken," said one administration official.

"The White House has settled on him, and we are just running the final traps to make sure everything is lined up before Clinton announces it," added a top White House aide.

The Social Security Administration employs 65,000 people, about of whom work at the headquarters in Woodlawn in Baltimore County. It sends pension and disability checks to 49 million Americans and collects payroll taxes from 142 million people and their employers.

If appointed and confirmed by the Senate, Apfel -- who could not be reached for com- ment -- would take the helm of a gargantuan retirement system that will have to undergo politically delicate long-term changes to stay afloat.

Demographic realities dictate that when the huge baby boom generation begins leaving the work force in 15 years or so, there won't be nearly enough money to maintain the current service at the current tax rates.

Options being discussed include privatizing the system, raising the retirement age, cutting annual cost-of-living increases, trimming benefits for the nation's well-to-do -- or significantly raising taxes. All of these choices are politically unpopular with certain groups. Moreover, the Republicans and Democrats mistrust each other profoundly on Social Security.

The agency has also been the subject of two recent internal investigations that found the agency's computer system had shortchanged 700,000 Americans by more than $850 million in retirement benefits since 1972 and is in danger of shortchanging millions more.

Although the agency drew praise for improving its responsiveness to beneficiaries since its staff was drastically reduced during the 1980s, congressional Republicans have recently said it has still been slow to curtail delays in the handling of disability claims.

Thus, the environment into which the new SSA commissioner will be venturing might not be a friendly one. But Apfel -- because of his background in the contentious health care arena -- is in a position to know this better than most and, according to his allies, is well-equipped to handle it.

"He's a great guy, and this would be a great appointment," Bradley said yesterday from his office in New Jersey. "I think he'll serve with distinction. Ken is a man of substance with a great humanity and a good deal of common sense."

Apfel worked for Bradley on Capitol Hill for 10 years. Before that, he worked as a Democratic budget analyst on the Senate Budget Committee.

A native of Worcester, Mass., Apfel earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Massachusetts, a master's degree in education from Northwestern University and a second master's degree, in public administration, from the University of Texas.

Last year, during an internal administration fight over whether Clinton should sign a bill overhauling the nation's welfare system, Apfel was one of those recommending against it for fear it would increase poverty. One White House aide on the opposite side of the debate recalls that Apfel distinguished himself -- even though he ended up on the losing side.

"He a good soldier and was completely professional," this aide said. "And that fits his personality. He's a total liberal. But he's a nice guy, and he does his job."

Every year, after the federal budget is sent to Capitol Hill, the career OMB program analysts have a party at which they roast the agency's political appointees. This year, they showed photographs of the political appointees "morphing" into various "Star Wars" characters. Apfel changed into Yoda, the funny-looking but ever-so-wise Jedi master.

Wisdom is an attribute the next SSA commissioner may need in abundance, according to both friends and foes of the Clinton administration.

Ed Turlington, another former aide in Bradley's Senate office, put it this way: "For all of us who are going to be on Social Security one day, I hope he knows what he's doing."

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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