The Independent Agency Issue

The Natural Forces of Administrative Control
There is a natural political tendency, a kind of administrative centripetal force, which causes control of executive branch agencies to gravitate in toward the center--toward increased direct control by the President. There is an equally active and opposite tendency, an administrative centrifugal force, which tends to move control away from the President. The first force manifests as Cabinet control of agencies, the second as the phenomenon of "independent agencies." Both movements are common in modern governance. Indeed, while most government employers work in agencies under Cabinet departments, there are currently about 60 independent agencies in the Executive Branch--including everything from the CIA and Amtrak, to the FCC, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Postal Service.

The Social Security Administration's Birth Pangs
When a new agency is born into the federal family a mini-struggle often erupts over the issue of parental control. As the members of the Committee on Economic Security (CES) got around to formulating their ideas as to how the new programs would be administered, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), Harry Hopkins, worked out an amicable deal. Under their arrangement, Labor would administer the old-age insurance and unemployment insurance provisions of the proposed law and FERA would administer old-age assistance and aid to dependent children. There was some logic to this arrangement since old-age insurance and unemployment insurance were both work-related programs (Labor's area of authority), whereas old-age assistance and aid to dependent children were "welfare" benefits similar to the "relief" programs FERA ran.

When the CES proposal was considered in the House Ways & Means Committee the Committee decided to create a new independent agency, the Social Security Board, to administer the programs. There were perhaps philosophical reasons for the change, but a large part of the motivation appears to have been personal antipathy toward Secretary Perkins, and an unwillingness to expand her authority. As Arthur Altmeyer remembers it: "It is my opinion that the personal dislike of the Secretary of Labor was due largely to the fact that she was a woman and an articulate, intelligent woman at that, as well as to the fact that she was not sufficiently amenable to patronage needs." Whatever the reasons, Ways & Means insisted on this change in jurisdiction. When the bill hit the Senate Finance Committee they took the opposite view, upholding the original CES proposal, in part because President Roosevelt lobbied the members to hold to the Administration's position. When the legislation went to conference, the Senate quickly receded to the House proposal and the new independent agency was authorized.

Presidential Gravity
So the Social Security Board (SSB) started out as an independent agency in 1935. It did not take President Roosevelt long, however, to pull the Board closer in toward Presidential control. In 1939 FDR devised a comprehensive plan for a reorganization of the Executive Branch, and in the fearful days preceding the U.S. entry into World War II, FDR persuaded Congress that the reorganization was a necessary part of the nation's "readiness" preparations. A little-noticed and relatively uncontroversial detail of the plan revoked the SSB's independent status, making it a sub-Cabinet agency under the control of the newly created Federal Security Agency. Thus FDR brought the Board back into the Presidential orbit without arousing the old antipathies toward Frances Perkins.

An Equal & Opposite Force
Presidential gravity is strong. It would be almost 60 years before the SSB, now renamed the Social Security Administration (SSA), would reclaim its status as an independent agency. There were tugs and pulls here and there along the way, but no serious countervailing force was exerted until the work of the 1981 Commission on Social Security.

The 1981 Commission made a strong recommendation that SSA be returned to its original independent status--even to extent of returning to its old name. For various reasons, the Commission's recommendations were not immediately influential. This recommendation, however, was echoed, more faintly, in the subsequent Greenspan Commission Report which called for a study of the issue. The study was dutifully completed in 1984 under the direction of long-time government official, Elmer Staats. The Staats Report then began a decade-long debate in the Congress over whether or not to return SSA to its former status as an independent agency. This debate culminated in 1994 with the passage of the Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994, which returned SSA to independent agency status effective March 31, 1995.

1935 CES Report Language
Text of 1935 Act
Reorganization Plan No. 1 - 1939
1981 Commission Recommendation
Greenspan Commission Recommendation
1984 Staats Study
House Hearing on Staats Report
Legislative Language from 1994 Change