`Not Just a Numbers Person'


Kenneth S. Apfel doesn't want to talk much yet about his own views on Social Security reform. But the new Social Security commissioner, who was sworn in at the mammoth agency's Baltimore headquarters on Sept. 29, is clear on one thing. "It is important to act quickly," he said in a recent interview.

"Social Security is not in crisis. However, if we take action soon, we can prevent a crisis from ever occurring." The "tough choices" required to counter the one-two punch of the baby boomers' approaching retirement and Americans' growing longevity will only become more difficult with time, he said.

Apfel is the first baby boomer to head the Social Security Administration. He turns 49 on Oct. 12 and has elderly parents and young children. Apfel says it is vital to lay the groundwork for change by educating the public about the long-term fiscal problems facing the program.

As a cautionary tale, he contrasts the passage of major Social Security reform legislation in 1983, after extensive public debate, with the disastrous public backlash against the 1988 law that provided catastrophic health care coverage for the elderly. Both were formative episodes for Apfel, who saw them up close during the more than 10 years he spent as a top aide to former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J. "Catastrophic was more of an inside discussion, with very little deep public debate," he said. "What catastrophic taught me is that you have got to bring the American people into a debate before major change is acceptable."

Apfel left Bradley's staff in 1993 to become assistant Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary for management and budget, then joined the White House Office of Management and Budget in 1995 as associate director for human resources, a powerful behind-the-scenes position where he oversaw budgets, policy and management for the Social Security Administration, the Labor and Education Departments and portions of HHS and the Agriculture Department.

He was extensively involved in welfare reform. It was Apfel who made the final presentation to the President describing the contents of the welfare overhaul legislation when Clinton was deciding whether to sign the measure. Known as a strong liberal with a rigorous approach to policy analysis, he privately opposed the welfare reform bill, but now says he's pleased that many of the flaws he saw in the legislation were changed as part of this year's budget deal.

A tall, bearded man, who apologizes to an interviewer for not being "smoother," Apfel earns extremely warm reviews from subordinates. "Ken always retained not only the respect but, I think it is fair to say, the love of the people who worked below him," said OMB spokesman Lawrence J. Haas. This high regard is shared by former bosses as well. HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala called Apfel "one of the most able policy analysts I've ever worked with." Former Sen. Bradley, through an aide, called Apfel "uniquely qualified" to head the 65,000-employee agency. And former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta said in a telephone interview that Apfel is noteworthy for the way he combines head and heart. "He not only has the expertise, but, I think more important than that, he has a sense of compassion about issues he's dealing with," said Panetta. "He's not just a numbers person."

Although better known for his policy skills than for his political work, Apfel nonetheless knows how to wield influence. During the final hours of appropriations negotiations in the fall of 1996, for example, he pushed for the Administration to attempt to delay the food-stamp cutoff contained in the welfare reform legislation the President had signed that summer.

"I said, '. . . I think this is a long shot,' " Panetta recalled. "But he said, 'Yeah, but it's worth a try.' "

Panetta put the proposal on the table. And to his surprise, he was able to persuade House Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to sign off on the change, which was included in the immigration reform measure that was attached to the appropriations bill.

Social Security commissioners in recent years have had much less influence over retirement policy than their predecessors had in the first few decades of the program. Apfel hopes to change that, partly by beefing up the agency's policy shop and partly by drawing on the expertise and connections he's built up in the jobs that have led him to his current post. "Will the Social Security Administration be a player in the policy debate? Absolutely," he said. "I've been part of the Clinton economic team for several years--that's going to continue."

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