WASHINGTON -- Citing a desire to spend more time with her children and grandchildren, Shirley S. Chater has announced that she is stepping down as Social Security commissioner after a rocky 3 1/2 years overseeing the nation's largest pension and disability programs.
"Whatever the future brings for me, I trust it will give me more time with family members," Chater said in her resignation letter to President Clinton, dated Election Day, Nov. 5. On Friday, Clinton accepted her resignation, which takes effect Jan. 31. No successor has been named.
During her tenure at the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, Chater received high marks for improving the agency's responsiveness to citizens. At the same time, she endured blistering criticism from Republican members of Congress, who said she was slow to curtail delays in the handling of disability claims and displayed weak leadership.
She also suffered through some embarrassing disclosures, such as one last month in which the agency acknowledged having shortchanged 700,000 Americans out of more than $850 million in retirement benefits since 1972 because of a computer foul-up.
Chater's effectiveness was undercut last year when the Republican-led Senate Finance Committee refused to act on her nomination by the president to a newly created six-year term. Chater continued to serve under an earlier congressional confirmation; only the president could actually remove her. But the lack of Senate approval hurt morale at the agency, observers said, and would have hampered her credibility on Capitol Hill.
Social Security employs 65,000 people, about 14,000 of whom work at the headquarters in Baltimore County. Each month, it sends pension and disability checks to 49 million Americans and collects payroll taxes from 142 million people and their employers.
When Chater took office in October 1993, Social Security was still grappling with a 20 percent cut in staff imposed by the Reagan administration. Employees were swamped by disability claims -- something Chater called "the agency's most challenging problem."
An 800 number established to free field offices of phone contact with the public became a disaster, leaving thousands of Americans unable to get through. Indeed, the phone situation became so severe that shortly after Chater arrived, the agency considered using federal prisoners to handle voice-mail requests for benefit statements and new Social Security cards.
Both the phone situation and the disability backlog have improved during her tenure. An independent analysis this year found that Social Security had a better phone system than a dozen other well-known organizations, including Southwest Airlines and the Nordstrom department store chain, according to Phil Gambino, a spokesman for the agency.
"I think she's done a good job under quite difficult circumstances," said Robert Ball, who served as the agency's commissioner in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.
Still, Chater, 63, was never able to develop support on Capitol Hill or in the trenches at Social Security headquarters, becoming known in both places as a weak leader.
In her resignation letter, Chater seemed to suggest that she thought her troubles on Capitol Hill were related to partisan politics. Instead of six years, she said, the commissioner's term should run four years, concurrent with the president's.
"This six-year term," she wrote, "has politicized the office because the possibility exists that a commissioner would serve at least part of his or her term under different presidents."
Had she been confirmed to a six-year term, Chater would have enjoyed greater job protection, whether a Democrat or a Republican occupied the White House. Some congressional Democrats speculate that Republicans ignored her nomination so that Bob Dole would be free to choose his own commissioner if he became president.
But Gambino said Chater's decision to resign was not related to the Republicans' continued control of the the Senate and their ability to deny her confirmation. "She had already made a decision this summer," he said.
Chater was reportedly traveling yesterday between the West Coast, where her children and grandchildren live, and Florida. She could not be reached for comment.
Pub Date: 11/12/96