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More Clout for Retirees

THE Social Security Administration seems to have outgrown its present home within the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and appears likely to become an independent federal agency.

President Clinton has endorsed the idea and, though some dissent - including that of HHS Secretary Donna Shalala - has been expressed among the Washington establishment, the proposal seems to have sufficient support to push it through the House and Senate.

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Secretary Shalala has stated that separating Social Security from her agency ``would run counter to the public's demand for a leaner, more efficient, and more cost-effective government.''

Is she right? Why create another huge government agency at this point? Social Security is already solidly ensconced in the United States economy and society. Advocates of separating the two agencies argue that making Social Security independent will send a strong message to Americans that the government is aware of the need to make the agencies more efficient and responsive.

During the last 15 to 20 years the office of the Social Security commissioner has had a revolving door, with occupants serving for only short terms. Without sufficient continuity in the office, critics say, problems have developed that should and could have been avoided.

The American Association of Retired Persons, a nongovernmental advocate for the nation's present and future retirees, supports the proposal to make the Social Security Administration an independent agency.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Monynihan (D) of New York has criticized both Secretary Shalala and President Clinton for neglecting the needs of Social Security and its recipients. Mr. Moynihan and other supporters of the Social Security change say that in giving it more independence, the agency is likely to be more visible and responsible. They also see it insulating the system from unwarranted tampering.

Others see the Social Security system, exposed as a single entity, more aware of the need to be fiscally sound and responsive to the genuine needs of American taxpayers.

Given its size, spinning the Social Security off from Health and Human Services may leave Shalala as Secretary of ``And.'' Yet given the nation's demographic changes and their impact on Social Security's finances, the time may be right to pull the agency out for closer scrutiny.

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