WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is close to naming a new commissioner of the Social Security Administration, which employs 14,000 people in the Baltimore area and is to be visited today for the first time by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala.
James Morrison, 57, a former official of the federal Office of Personnel Management, has emerged as the leading candidate, sources familiar with the job hunt said yesterday. Administration officials declined to comment on the search for a commissioner, which according to sources has focused on black and female candidates.
Among those mentioned as a candidate is Herbert Doggette Jr., a former top Social Security official. His prospects have reportedly dimmed in the face of criticism by federal employee unions, who were angered by staff cutbacks Mr. Doggette made as deputy commissioner for operations before his retirement in 1990.
Former Social Security officials Jane Ross and Patricia Owens have also been mentioned, as has Mr. Doggette's successor, Janice Warden.
A top official of the congressional General Accounting Office, Assistant Comptroller General Lawrence Thompson, also has been mentioned as a candidate and could wind up with a deputy commissioner-level job at Social Security, according to one source.
The new Social Security commissioner will face one of the most difficult management jobs in government.
During the Reagan administration, the staff of the Woodlawn-based agency was cut drastically, even as the elderly population grew. Disability claims, which used to require 60 days to process, now require 90 days.
President Clinton promised in his campaign to eliminate 100,000 federal jobs and began yesterday by announcing plans to cut the White House staff. How he will deal with Social Security is unclear. The agency has 65,000 workers nationwide, down from 80,000 at its peak, and processes payments of $300 billion annually to 41 million Americans.
Louis D. Enoff has been acting commissioner since Oct. 1 and is not seeking the top job. He was principal deputy commissioner under commissioner Gwendolyn King, who left after three years.
Mr. Morrison had no comment yesterday when asked about the post, which pays $115,700 a year. He heads a Washington lobbying and public policy firm, Morrison and Associates, whose clients include the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. A Democrat, he worked at the federal Office of Management and Budget during the Carter administration and was associate director of the Office of Personnel Management during the Reagan administration, heading its retirement and insurance group.
Social Security, which is under the Department of Health and Human Services, is to receive its first visit today from Ms. Shalala, the new department head, who planned to address workers there this afternoon. Several Democratic members of the Maryland congressional delegation, including Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, and Reps. Kweisi Mfume and Benjamin L. Cardin, were to accompany her.
"I've got a tremendous amount of interest in that agency," said Mr. Mfume, whose district includes Woodlawn. "I believe that the continuing functioning of that agency in an effective way is extremely important, not only to the people it serves but the people who work there."
Unions representing Social Security workers complained bitterly of staff cuts during the Reagan administration and battled with then-Commissioner Dorcas Hardy.
"We're looking for an administrator who is not trying to dismantle the program as we had so often during the Reagan-Bush years," said Janice R. Lachance, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees.
Ms. Shalala is not expected to name the new commissioner during her visit.
Administration officials said the announcement would come "soon" and probably would be part of a package consisting of other Health and Human Services appointments.