Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., has once again proposed making the Social Security Administration (SSA) an independent agency. It is an eminently sensible suggestion.
Experts on government administration have been urging taking SSA out of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for years. The House has voted three times to make SSA independent. All Maryland representatives voted for the bill last time. They may have been influenced by the widely-held assumption that career employees of SSA at Woodlawn strongly favor such independence. But there are non-parochial reasons for favoring this change, too. That was evident in the size of the 1992 House vote -- 350-8.
What advantage would independence bring?
For recipients of the various Social Security programs, a sense that bureaucratic politics would not be able to influence things as much as in the past.
For example, if the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) orders HHS to cut its total budget by, say, 3 percent, that department is likely to take 3 percent or more out of SSA regardless of fairness or priority. SSA makes up about half of HHS's budget. The HHS secretary, not the Social Security commissioner, negotiates with OMB and the president over budget reductions. Senator Moynihan wisely chose his words when he said that SSA is "buried" in HHS and that OMB is "stingy" with it to the point of causing backlogs of claims.
Then there's this sort of politics: In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration ordered staff reduction of 21 percent at the Social Security Administration and knocked 265,000 people off the disability rolls -- relatively few victims in both cases, it is safe to say, were Republicans.
There is also the question of SSA's effectiveness. The Moynihan proposal and a slightly different one favored by House members would give SSA longer-tenured and better qualified leadership at the top. The commissioner would have standing and salary equivalent to that of a cabinet secretary. That should attract better candidates for the job.
Giving the commissioner a four-year term would avoid a problem that has plagued SSA for years -- short-timers at the top. In the past 16 years, there have been 11 commissioners or acting commissioners. The present commissioner was sworn in this month after a year-long vacancy. This sort of thing interferes with moderate-range planning and affects operations and morale, especially for high-level and middle-level career employees.
Social Security was originally an independent agency. When it lost that status, it was still a small agency. Today it is 10 times larger than some cabinet-level departments and spends more than the combined outlays of 11 departments. As Senator Moynihan says, "It simply defies common sense for an agency this large to be included under an umbrella bureaucracy."