Lockhart and Barrel

If there's an enterprising congressional Democrat out there looking to make a splash in the fight against partial privatization of Social Security, he or she ought to call up James B. Lockhart III, deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), and ask him to come speak at an anti-private accounts rally.

Lockhart, a political appointee and major donor who has given about $20,000 to GOP causes over the past two election cycles, has been appearing at town-hall meetings across the country for the past week with Republican members of Congress, all of whom are pushing President Bush's privatization agenda.

An interested citizen attending one of these events might have taken away the idea that, by appearing at an event with a lawmaker aggressively pushing privatization, Lockhart was signaling his -- or even the SSA's -- support of privatization. But Lockhart insists that in all his appearances with pro-privatization Republicans, his role is strictly educational. And, according to the SSA, Lockhart is offering his services to any Democrats who ask for them.

“He is open to any invitations for him to appear at any event a member of Congress has on Social Security,” SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle said Thursday.

Democrats, though, might be hesitant to call on Lockhart, as he's a member of the Bush administration and a committed Republican. But the former software executive proved this week that he doesn't hold grudges.

Just last month, his own agency's inspector general had to contact the office of Senator Rick Santorum to get the Pennsylvania Republican to stop using a misleading PowerPoint presentation bearing the seal of the SSA. But this week, there was Lockhart, standing shoulder to shoulder with Santorum as the senator kicked off a series of pro-privatization town-hall meetings across Pennsylvania.

Lockhart joined Santorum at Philadelphia's Drexel University, where the senator was welcomed by members of the Drexel College Republicans chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Social Security's got to go.” (No kidding. The video's posted here.)

On Wednesday, Lockhart was in Ohio, appearing with Representative Rob Portman, and on Thursday, he was in Texas, appearing with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The previous Saturday, he appeared in Arizona with Representative Jim Kolbe. “He was invited by the members of Congress, and his role at these forums is to educate the public about the system and the problems it faces today,” said Hinkle.

Asked if there was ever an effort made to specifically inform attendees that Lockhart's presence on the podium with advocates of partial privatization did not indicate an endorsement by the SSA, Hinkle did not answer directly, saying only, “It is clear we are there to educate and not proselytize.”

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear all that clear to some congressional Democrats. In a statement released Thursday, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg said, “The administration is running one of the most sophisticated grass-roots lobbying strategies in history, and they are using federal employees and taxpayer dollars to do it. Social Security employees should be spending their time serving the needs of Social Security recipients, not advancing a political agenda.”

Lautenberg has taken up the cause of the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals representing Social Security employees representing Social Security employees, many of whom have questioned the use of SSA personnel to promote the Bush administration's plans to create private accounts out of the Social Security Trust Fund's revenues.

As part of an effort to understand the extent of top SSA officials' lobbying on the part of the Bush administration, the employees' union filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the travel schedules and meeting notes of Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart, Lockhart, and Martin Gerry, the deputy commissioner of disability and income security programs.

The Freedom of Information office of the Social Security Administration replied that to defer the cost of gathering that information, the employees' union would have to pay $813,000 -- not including photocopying. (Granted, the union's request, according to a copy of the response made available by Senator Lautenberg's office, appears to have been remarkably broad, asking for documentation of virtually everything any of the three subjects had done since he or she had been in office that could be connected to trips taken on behalf of the SSA.)

“The administration is doing everything they can to conceal the lobbying activities of their top officials, which only raises suspicion,” Lautenberg said. “It is preposterous that pulling together the travel schedule and meeting notes of three Social Security officials would cost over $800,000. SSA is clearly trying to hide information from the public.”

Rob Garver is a journalist who lives in Springfield, Virginia. He is also studying at Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

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