WASHINGTON -- Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan blasted the Clinton White House yesterday for failing to nominate a commissioner to lead the Social Security Administration, calling the long-running vacancy at the top "a scandal."
It was by far the strongest criticism yet from the New York Democrat, who began publicly chastising the Clinton administration over the delay more than two months ago.
"It is a scandal," Mr. Moynihan told administration representatives at a Finance Committee hearing. "The position will have been empty for a year. . . . It indicates a lack of concern. Clearly, Social Security does not matter very much to this administration. I don't know what does matter."
Earlier this month, senior administration officials said Shirley Sears Chater, a Texas university president, would be chosen for the post. But Mr. Clinton has yet to submit her nomination to Mr. Moynihan's committee for confirmation.
The agency, headquartered in Woodlawn, where it employs 14,000 people, hasn't had a permanent director since Gwendolyn King stepped down last September. Mr. Moynihan has grown increasingly critical of the situation in recent months. He briefly held up the nominations of several Clinton appointees to the Department of Health and Human Services, apparently in anger over the delay at SSA.
For the record, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, SSA's parent agency, would say only that HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala has been trying to find the best candidate for the job. Privately, they blame the White House for the delay, adding that background checks on Mrs. Chater have not been completed.
"We know how ardent Senator Moynihan is in his concern for the Social Security system," said Avis LaVelle, assistant secretary for public affairs. "He's made no secret of that to us. If anything, it has inspired us to search harder."
Ms. Shalala did inform Mr. Moynihan of the choice of Mrs. Chater before it was leaked to the media.
Mr. Moynihan complained that even if the nomination were sent up immediately, there isn't time to schedule a confirmation hearing before Congress begins its long summer recess next month.
"If we had the nomination, I would have reported it out this morning," the New York Democrat said in an interview after the hearing. He added that the vacancy was damaging the agency's performance.
The new acting commissioner of SSA, Lawrence H. Thompson, had originally been scheduled to testify but was forced to cancel because "he was up to his eyeballs in work" since taking over the post on Monday, a committee aide said. David T. Elwood, assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at HHS, appeared instead.
"Will you have the goodness to transfer to the secretary the view of the chairman that it is a disgrace that this has not been done?" Mr. Moynihan asked Mr. Elwood.
"Senator, I will convey your concerns in the strongest possible terms," Mr. Elwood replied.
Senator Moynihan did not bring the issue up at a lunch Tuesday with President Clinton.
Yesterday's outburst came at a hearing on a bill that would simplify Social Security rules for paying domestic help. Failing to properly pay nannies, maids and other workers became a major issue after Zoe Baird was forced to withdraw her nomination for attorney general in January after it was revealed that she hired two illegal immigrants and had not paid Social Security taxes on their wages until she was a contender for a government job.
Several other appointees to high posts have since been tripped up by what is now referred to in Washington as a "Zoe Baird problem."
Officials familiar with the situation said one reason it has taken so long to fill the $115,700 commissioner's job is that other candidates hadn't paid the tax on their domestic help, either. The officials added that Mrs. Chater doesn't have "a Zoe Baird problem," however.