To the already raucous fight over Social Security, add a new -- and unlikely -- government agency: the National Archives and Records Administration.
The guardian of the nation's historical records has joined the fray over President Bush's plan for private Social Security accounts. Last week, it blocked a coalition of women's organizations from holding a Social Security forum at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., because the groups oppose Bush's proposed personal accounts.
"If you cannot provide at least one speaker who will speak on the features and merits of the administration's plan for Social Security, then I must ask that you find another venue for your program," the library's director, Cynthia M. Koch, wrote on March 31 to one of the groups sponsoring the forum. The library at the home of FDR -- who fathered the Social Security system 70 years ago -- is administered by the National Archives.
Wrote Koch: "Changes to the Social Security system are now the president's highest priority on his domestic agenda in Congress; therefore, in order to be in compliance with the Hatch Act, I must require you to present a program that is balanced in presenting both sides of the Social Security debate."
Koch said the forum would be against federal regulations because it "may be perceived as being partisan."
A spokeswoman for the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act, said it is not at issue because the groups' meeting on Social Security, a topic of public policy, "does not seem to involve a partisan campaign or activity."
The Hatch Act restricts partisan activities by government employees; it says federal buildings cannot be used for "campaign activities," defined as those promoting a political party, a political group or a candidate for partisan political office. The act does not prohibit policy-related activities.
The three groups -- the Older Women's League, the American Association of University Women, and the League of Women Voters -- are nonpartisan. The organizations oppose private Social Security accounts, but they invited two Republicans from New York, Reps. Sue E. Kelly and John W. Sweeney, to participate. They declined, but Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) accepted.
After inquiries yesterday, National Archivist Allen Weinstein said he supported Koch for "acting under what she thought were the relevant parts of the statute," but he said he would seek to reinvite the groups. "We're going to invite them back to the library," he said in an interview, noting that the archives would invite groups with competing views to hold other forums. "The National Archives is dedicated to free speech."
A spokesman for the groups last night was unaware they had been reinvited.
Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said the groups would be urged to include dissenting voices but not required to do so.
The women's groups have moved their forum, scheduled for Saturday, from the Roosevelt library to a nearby Friends' Meeting House.
The National Council of Women's Organizations had protested the move by Koch. "In keeping with the Bush administration's determination to quash anyone who disagrees with them, federal agencies now consider it 'partisan' to hold any opinion that is not identical to the president's," the group said in a statement. It pointed out that yesterday, Bush promoted his plan at a federal facility -- the Bureau of Public Debt in West Virginia -- without giving time to anybody opposed to personal accounts.
Weinstein has been on the job for six weeks. Several historical organizations opposed his selection, fearing he would politicize the archives. Bush removed the previous archivist without providing a reason to Congress.
Bush and administration officials are in the middle of a 60-day effort of barnstorming the country to build support for the personal accounts. One of the Social Security trustees, Thomas R. Saving, has been advising a group, Progress for America, that promotes the accounts.
Opponents of Bush's Social Security plan have protested the official use of the Social Security Administration to warn Americans by mail, telephone and the Internet that the system will run out of money by 2042 without urgent action.