A Retiree Trying to Save His Life’s Work

Times Staff Writer

Like many other retirees, Bob Ball is concerned about what’s going to happen to Social Security.

From his cluttered office in his otherwise tidy retirement community home, he has proposed his own formula for shoring up Social Security’s financial future. His relatively modest tax increases and benefit cuts, combined with some government investment in the stock market, offer a contrast to President Bush’s call for individual investment accounts, which Ball abhors, and steeper curbs on traditional benefits for many future retirees.

But Ball’s goal isn’t preservation of his monthly benefit check. Instead, he is defending the program that is his life’s work.


Before the first monthly Social Security check was delivered in 1940, he was already working as a 25-year-old clerk in the Newark, N.J., Social Security office for $1,620 a year.

He shot up through the bureaucracy to become commissioner of Social Security for three presidents. On his watch, Social Security became the biggest and most popular benefits program. And in 1983, when he had been collecting retirement benefits for four years, he was a key negotiator of the law that rescued Social Security from the brink of insolvency.

With the possible exception of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, perhaps no one has been associated with a federal institution as intimately and for as long as Robert M. Ball. He is one of the last of a nearly extinct species: career civil servants who became top policymakers.

Ball met nine presidents during his career, all from No. 33 (Harry S. Truman) to No. 42 (Bill Clinton), except for No. 38 (Gerald R. Ford).

But now the proposals of No. 43, George W. Bush, have prompted the 91-year-old Ball to try to make his voice heard in Washington once again to fight proposals that, in his view, would unravel his life’s work.

What Bush has proposed “would ruin the whole system,” said Ball, a physically imposing man whom age has not bent. “It’s a fundamental, philosophical policy shift.”


President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ball said, wanted a government-provided benefit that would replace a fixed percentage of a workers’ pre-retirement income. The vision was of a benefit based not on need -- which would carry the stigma of a welfare program -- but on past earnings.

“FDR talked about a basic retirement income that would guarantee a certain replacement rate for everybody to build on,” Ball said. But the individual investment accounts proposed by Bush, which would allow younger workers to use some of their payroll taxes to ride the ups and downs of the stock and bond markets, would undermine that guarantee, he said.

And Bush’s suggestion that benefits be reduced from now-promised levels for future middle-income and wealthier retirees, Ball said, would eventually leave all with about the same benefit now promised to the poor.

“For the last 70 years,” Ball said, “we’ve been operating a system that’s useful to every American family. Bush’s plan now says we’ll maintain the benefits promise only for the poor. We’re asking everybody except the poor to accept the idea that the more you have paid in to the system, the more your benefits will be cut.”

The result, he said, would be a loss of political support for Social Security.

Ball has his own proposal, which includes dedicating the proceeds of the estate tax to Social Security and using a more precise -- and stingier -- measure of price inflation to determine annual cost-of-living adjustments.

His most controversial proposal: let the government invest some of the Social Security trust fund’s surplus in stock index funds. Although this would allow the government to profit from expected -- but not assured -- market gains, critics have warned that it could also open the door to government meddling in corporate affairs, despite safeguards that Ball has proposed.


Whether Ball will still hold influence in the Social Security debate is unclear. He has not been asked to testify to Congress about his plan, although the Century Foundation, a nonprofit policy research group, has published and promoted it. He hopes some Democratic lawmakers, who are refusing to deal with Bush as long as he is pushing individual accounts, will turn to his alternative when the time comes.

Peter Ferrara, a senior policy advisor to the Institute for Policy Innovation and author of the most radical plan to convert Social Security from a guaranteed benefit to a network of private accounts, scoffed at the notion that Ball’s ideas would gain traction.

“He’s a well-meaning gentleman who hasn’t had a new idea in 40 years,” Ferrara said.

But Ball’s adversaries have learned to ignore him at their peril.

“Through sheer hard work, intelligence, persistence, dedication and, perhaps most of all, devotion, Bob Ball has managed, inside and outside of government, to be one of the most influential voices at any time on Social Security,” said Eugene Steuerle, a Social Security expert at the Urban Institute.

This is not the first time that Ball has come out of retirement to advance ideas for bolstering Social Security -- and the last time, he carried the day.

In 1983, 10 years out of government, Ball was a central figure behind a bipartisan package to keep Social Security from running out of money -- a prospect then only months away.

The cooperation between the parties that followed seems like ancient history today, with Bush promoting his individual investment accounts around the country and congressional Democrats refusing to deal with him until he drops them.


Legend has it that when a bipartisan commission deadlocked, President Reagan, a Republican, and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.), decided that Social Security’s future was more important than partisan advantage. So the two Irishmen met alone and agreed to a rescue package.

Fiction, says Ball. “Reagan and O’Neill couldn’t stay in the same room together,” he said. The deal was negotiated largely by Ball, representing O’Neill, and Reagan’s Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, representing the president. Others who were influential included Alan Greenspan, chairman of the bipartisan commission, and Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

Baker corroborated that account. In an interview, he said that he and Ball, along with a few other commission members, met secretly in the basement of Baker’s Washington house to work out a deal. To get to one meeting, Ball evaded reporters camped in front of his house by climbing down a wooded, snow-covered hill behind his home to a car sent by Baker’s office.

“He was quite an authority on the subject, and I was not,” Baker said. “But first and foremost this was a political exercise, and he knew that as well as I. To touch the third rail of politics, we had to get the leadership of both parties to go along.”

It wasn’t easy. Commission members quickly agreed that the final package had to include tax increases (accelerating an increase already scheduled in the law) and benefit cuts (delaying from each July 1 to the following Jan. 1 the annual cost-of-living benefit increase).

When that didn’t add up to enough cost savings, Ball hit upon an innovative step that could be interpreted by Democrats as a tax increase or by Republicans as a benefit cut: subject some Social Security benefits to the income tax.


Reagan and O’Neill signed off on the deal, and Congress passed the accord handily.

In his biography of Ball, George Washington University historian Edward D. Berkowitz gave Ball much of the credit for the commission’s success. “No one else,” he wrote, “had Ball’s combination of interpersonal skills and impersonal knowledge.”

Over the years, Ball had a first-hand look at how presidents handled the politics and finances of the popular retirement program. He was appointed commissioner of Social Security by John F. Kennedy in 1962, a job that he held not only through Lyndon B. Johnson’s Democratic administration but also for the first term of Republican Richard M. Nixon.

In 1972, when he was running for reelection, Nixon supported a 5% benefit increase along with a long-time goal of Ball’s -- automatically adjusting benefits in future years to keep pace with inflation. Congress kept the inflation protection, but not before granting a 20% benefit increase for 1972.

Nixon had opposed the 20% raise as unaffordable. Still, his aide Chuck Colson got the idea of including in the envelope with the first beefed-up Social Security check an insert crediting Nixon with the increase. Ball threatened to quit and, by implication, go public with the reason, if the White House took this unprecedented step. The White House backed down.

Nixon replaced Ball the next year. Among the framed photos that adorn Ball’s office walls is one of him and his wife, Doris, flanking Nixon at Ball’s farewell visit to the Oval Office.

“Nixon was terrible at small talk and repeated the same formula over and over,” Ball recalled. “As this picture was being taken, he said, ‘This is the only time I come between a man and his wife.’ ”


That was three decades ago. Ball has outlived many of the presidents for whom he worked. He and Doris -- a high school classmate -- have been married 68 years now.

And, if anyone cares to listen, he has a long view and a few more ideas about Social Security to share.