Important changes may be in store for social security system

Should the Social Security Administration be independent from the rest of the Department of Health and Human Services? It was once -- in the first years of its existence, during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. And should the Treasury Department be forbidden from selling some of the social security trust fund's bonds to keep the government afloat when Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling fast enough? That happened last fall; it caused a hue-and-cry in Congress, and great concern among social security recipients.

These questions may seem esoteric and of concern only to a bureaucrat. But they pertain directly to an important issue for millions of Americans: confidence in the stability of the social security system.

Polls report that many Americans are dubious about the future of social security.

The young in particular question whether the system will still be making monthly payments when they are ready to retire. Today, 36 million Americans receive monthly social security checks.

Just before House and Senate recessed this past weekend, the House Ways and Means committee approved legislation to make social security independent, and to prohibit the selling of social security's bonds.

Proponents of both measures say if they become law this would help restore public confidence in the system.

Former Social Security Commissioner Robert Ball, who supports the changes, says social security is ``a program that affects almost every American family.''

Speaking specifically of social security independence, he says: ``Anything that can be done . . . to have it operate completely on a bipartisan nature is very important'' to perception as well as fact.

The purpose of making the Social Security Administration an independent agency, say proponents, is to remove it from politics and have its operations overseen by a three-member, bipartisan board.

It is particularly difficult for members of Congress to oppose -- especially in an election year -- the proposal to forbid the Treasury Department from again selling social security bonds, even though in last fall's case the government ultimately put all the money back.

But whether Congress, already distracted by a combination of this fall's elections and major congressional issues, will complete action on both issues this late in the legislative year is not certain.

The House of Representatives is expected to consider the two questions, now part of the same bill, in about three weeks. Both proposals are expected to sail through the House.

The Senate may be another story. There, the issues must be considered initially by the Finance Committee, whose members will be busy with tax reform and trade legislation.

The proposal to forbid circumventing the debt ceiling by selling some of the social security trust fund's bonds has the better chance of passage.

It is supported by the Reagan administration. And Senate sponsor Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York says that if there is no Senate action by September, he will attach the jist of the proposal to a debt reconciliation proposal, which would increase its prospects for approval.

The social security system's independence, however, is opposed by the Reagan administration and could remain stuck in the Republican-dominated Senate.

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