WASHINGTON -- With a bigger budget than the Pentagon and double the employees of the State Department, the Social Security Administration may finally become an independent agency this year, winning the clout that backers say its size demands.
Now a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Woodlawn-based agency would become an independent entity such as the National Aeronautic and Space Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency under legislation making its way through Congress and considered likely to pass later this year.
"Social Security is our most important and successful domestic program, and we must take better care that it is properly administered," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan told Social Security administrators at a recent hearing. "It defies common sense for an agency this large to be included under an umbrella bureaucracy."
Mr. Moynihan, who assumed the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee a year ago, is lobbying hard for the bill, which he introduced in October. The committee sent the bill to the full Senate in November.
Stalled in Senate
In the past, the House has passed the bill, but the Senate never took up the legislation, in part because of the threat of expensive amendments that would have broadened Social Security benefits. This year, the bill's prospects in the Senate have been greatly improved by Mr. Moynihan's newfound clout, and amendments are unlikely. Although the Clinton administration and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala officially oppose the proposal, the president is not expected to antagonize Mr. Moynihan by vetoing the bill, particularly when his support is needed to pass health care reform legislation.
In addition, the effort is strongly backed by seniors groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons. They maintain that independence could give the $300 billion program the influence it needs in Washington.
"It's an idea whose time has come," says Al Levy, executive vice-president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 15,000 Social Security workers. "An independent agency would go a long way toward improving morale. This is desperately needed."
Among the benefits he and others cite are:
* A louder voice at the White House and especially with the Office of Management and Budget. More influence could have helped avert the staff cuts that hit Social Security during the Reagan years. It also could help win more money now to hire new workers, relieving long backlogs in the troubled disability program and elsewhere.
* Less bureaucracy. Currently, independence backers say, new strategies and proposals must not only make it through Woodlawn but must also pass through a lengthy bureaucratic gantlet at HHS's Washington headquarters. Independence might mean more leeway for Social Security's managers to set policy and get things done.
* More attention to long-standing programs. With caseloads growing and shortfalls threatening to overwhelm some Social Security programs, an independent leader could assure that problems are dealt with. Currently, critics say, Ms. Shalala has her hands full with health care reform, not to mention next year's expected overhaul of the nation's welfare system.
* Restoration of public confidence. Since the agency is often criticized for its unresponsiveness to millions of Social Security recipients, Mr. Moynihan and others argue that an independent agency would be more accountable to average Americans and could help improve the mammoth agency's tattered public image.
"It's good government, it's good policy, it's good politics," says Ed Lopez, deputy staff director for the Senate Finance Committee. He notes that the House has passed the proposal three times, once unanimously.
But not everyone thinks an independent Social Security Administration is a good idea.
"It's unnecessary," says Dorcas R. Hardy, who served as commissioner of the Social Security Administration from 1986 to 1989. "It does nothing positive for the agency. I think SSA has a lot more important things to do than worry about getting reorganized."
Ms. Hardy says the independence proposal's popularity on Capitol Hill is simply a matter of political expedience. "Congress can go home in November and say, 'Look what I did for you.' It's a headline grabber but it's of no consequence."
She warns that the move could cost millions as the Social Security Administration will have to pick up the tab for services now provided by Health and Human Services, such as legal advice, payroll management and an inspector general's office.
Mr. Lopez responds that Social Security can handle these jobs on its own and cites a recent Congressional Budget Office estimate that concluded that independence would cost about $1 million more each year, a tiny fraction of the overall budget.
Independent under FDR
Independence wouldn't be completely new. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the program, Social Security's administrator reported directly to the president. It wasn't until President Dwight D. Eisenhower's first term that it became part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the predecessor to today's Health and Human Services.
While objections in the past have hampered progress in the Senate, Mr. Moynihan has won some key allies. Sen. Bob Packwood, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, supports the legislation, as do many other Republicans. And although Ms. Shalala has testified in opposition, aides on Capitol Hill don't expect a Clinton veto.
They note that the president is grateful for Mr. Moynihan's help in pushing the budget package through Congress last summer and predict that Mr. Clinton will need the New York Democrat's help again this year in passing his health care reform plan.
"There is no reason for Bill Clinton to get in the way of this," says one aide. "Let's face it. He doesn't care whether SSA is part of Health and Human Services. But Clinton is going to need Moynihan in the future."
Officials on Capitol Hill say Ms. Shalala drafted a letter to Senate Finance Committee members in opposition to the proposed legislation but that the White House blocked her from delivering it.
Congressional aides say White House officials may come out for independence later this year. But Ms. Shalala is still opposed, according to Health and Human Services spokesman Victor Zonana.
"It would be disruptive," says Mr. Zonana. "Having a Cabinet secretary arguing SSA's side at the Cabinet table gives it great clout."