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Agency Under Stress: The Social Security Administration in American Government.

THANKS TO experiences too numerous and painful to record, most Americans would agree with author Martha Derthick's assertion that "the institutions of American government function in ways that are not conducive to good administration." Her latest book documents and explains why that's truly the case. This is a revealing work about government for which the hackneyed expression, "Easier said than done" would be an appropriate subtitle.

In broad and theoretical terms under American democracy, the President and the Congress arrive at a consensus that becomes "law" and, hence, the "policy" of the government. Courts interpret the law while administrative bureaucracies carry it out. In reality, that high school textbook description doesn't do justice to the minefield that putting policy into practice has become. Presidents and Congresses give little thought to how their plans are to be implemented. Furthermore, they disagree, change their minds, and micromanage. Courts intervene and sometimes even make their own law. Bureaucracies get caught squarely in the middle. Derthick, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University- of Virginia and former Brookings Institution senior fellow illustrates the argument by analyzing two highly publicized cases of poor administration by the Social Security Administration. The first case is that of SSI, the formerly state-run supplemental security income program, and the decision of Congress and the President to federalize it under SSA in 1974. The second case is that of an eligibility review for disability insurance recipients that Congress and the President ordered SSA to undertake in 1980.

These two events did irreparable damage to the image and integrity of SSA, once thought of as, in Derthick's language, "the Marine Corps of the domestic civil service - elite and invincible." Mention them to anyone in-the-know in Washington today, and you will elicit a wince and a shake of the head. They were first-rate disasters worthy of the sort of intense review provided here by Derthick.

When SSI was handed over to the SSA to administer, the agency was utterly unprepared. It had no experience in implementing a means-tested income support program. All it did before was dole out benefits to people who had earned the right to them by the relatively easy-to-verify process of paying taxes. Determining "need" was like nailing jello to the wall, especially when lead time to take over the program was inadequate and no less than 3 million impatient recipients from 1,350 state and local administrative units were knocking on the federal door.

A cascade of errors resulted: overpayments, underpayments, late payments, no payments at all, payments to ineligibles, to name a few. In all, $400 million was misspent in the first year.

The disability review was prompted by concern in Washington that the burgeoning rolls of disability recipients were being clogged by people who really were not eligible. Like a blind behemoth, SSA whacked away. Soon the press was documenting horror story after horror story until the spring of 1984, when "opposition was so powerful and the chaos was so complete that the Administration was compelled to suspend the review and wait for Congress to try to restore order with new legislation."

Bureaucracy was not the lone culprit. The Presidency was the source of plans "hastily conceived and born of the postelection urge to act," or the "victory syndrome" as Derthick terms it. It sought to rationalize, standardize and simplify policy but its "distance from the field" rendered much of its effort futile or even counterproductive. Its attempt at oversight pushed SSA to act at cross-purposes and in ways that destabilized the agency's pattern of relations with Congress, the courts, and the public.

Responding to its own mix of whim and pressure, an inconstant Congress overwhelmed SSA with directives and changes. Derthick paints the legislative branch as inherently Janus-faced: acting on the one hand as an institutional policymaker for the nation and as a body of 535 politicians, each with his own constituency, on the other. Much of its oversight consisted of casting blame on everybody else.

The courts contributed too. Derthick shows how they "significantly enlarged the administration burden" of SSI and in the case of the disability review, put SSA virtually in judicial receivership."

Agency leadership does not escape Derthick's scrutiny. It was, in fact, nonexistent during the disability review and excessively optimistic at the time of the assumption of SSI.

In a chapter entitled "The Changes Brought by Big Government," Derthick strongly suggests that the mess she is illuminating is the natural outcome of a government grown beyond bounds contentious, unwieldy, complex and too busy to think seriously about what it's doing. She suggests the handicaps that afflict SSA are common among agencies, and cites the IRS in particular to prove her point. "Administrative dysfunction she writes, "is be coming widespread, even endemic."

So, does she offer a ringing endorsement of more limited government, a restoration of volunteerism and self-reliance to supplant the "Government knows best" philosophy, a reverse flow of power from Washington to the states and localities, as remedies? Not really. Indeed, she says that "to the extent that problems arise out of the size of government, not much is to be done." She offers "Some Modest Prescriptions" to improve administration, the core of which is the suggestion that "the generalist staff agencies (such as the General Accounting Office) be developed to function as "dispassionate and regular source(s) of' information and advice about the administrative capacities of federal administrative agencies."

A reader well-versed in the contributions of public choice economics will quickly conjure up good reasons why Derthick's prescriptions are little more than band-aids on one big broken water main. Her thesis rests upon the fact that policymakers never asked the right questions when cooking up new duties for the SSA. However, she falls short of answering this very important, gut-level question herself- Doesn't the weight of evidence suggest that making government work better starts with making it a lot smaller?

Still, Agency Under Stress is a valuable contribution, a documentary about two recent events that illustrates many of the reasons why, in government, the plans that go awry are not always the best-laid ones.

Lawrence W. Reed

The Mackinac Center

Midland, Michigan
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Author:Reed, Lawrence W.
Publication:Business Economics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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