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Robert M. Ball; 'Spiritual Leader' of Social Security

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

Robert M. Ball, 93, commissioner of Social Security under three presidents who was a major player in virtually every development of the old-age and disability insurance field for the past 60 years, died of congestive heart failure Jan. 29 at Collington Episcopal Life Care Community in Mitchellville.

Mr. Ball joined Social Security just four years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the program in 1935, then ran it from 1962 to 1973. He was one of the chief architects of Medicare and administered it for its first seven years. He oversaw the increase of Social Security benefits and the introduction of automatic cost-of-living adjustments. He drafted the Kennedy-Mills bill, which proposed universal health insurance, and three times in the past 25 years helped reform and save the old-age insurance program.

Mr. Ball was described by American Scholar magazine in 2005 as Social Security's "biggest thinker, longest-serving commissioner and undisputed spiritual leader . . . Social Security's chief advocate and defender."

"Almost no one in the United States outside the Washington Beltway has ever heard of Robert M. Ball," wrote then-Washington Post reporter Spencer Rich in 1986. "But for the last 15 to 20 years, Ball, whose formidable mind and powerful negotiating abilities belie his 72 years, has been probably the nation's most influential Democrat -- and possibly the most influential person of any party -- in shaping the fate of the giant Social Security program, which pays out $200 billion a year to 37 million retired and disabled Americans."

With his vast and detailed knowledge of the system, an ability to explain complex topics simply and clearly, and a talent for finding compromise, Mr. Ball advised policymakers and wrote books, commentaries and position papers.

His 1973 " Final Report" was "nothing less than Ball's instructions to his successors on how they should continue to run the Social Security program after his departure," the Social Security Administration Web site said.

In October, he defended Social Security in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, arguing for raising the top salary on which Social Security taxes are assessed, investing some of the program's assets in equities and dedicating the revenue from the estate tax to Social Security. He called Social Security "the nation's most effective anti-poverty program" and urged presidential candidates not to support benefit cuts.

"Social Security benefits are modest by any measure and are already being cut -- by raising the age of eligibility for full benefits and by deducting ever-rising Medicare premiums from benefit checks," he wrote. "Social Security has never been more important to more Americans than it is now . . . About a third of the elderly rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income; two-thirds count on it to supply at least half of their income."

Mr. Ball also maintained a Web site and was working on a personal memoir. The most recent of his six books was "Insuring the Essentials: Bob Ball on Social Security" (2000). He was also a Social Security beneficiary himself.

Born in New York, one of three children of a Methodist minister, Robert M. Ball grew up in northern New Jersey and graduated from Wesleyan University, where he also received a master's degree in economics in 1936 during the Depression.

Desperate for a job, he turned to his thesis adviser, who told him, "Well, this program is just starting up. It's going to be a big program. It's an attractive program and an important social program, and it would be a good thing if you got in on it in the beginning," Mr. Ball told the New York Times in 1999. He took a civil service exam during his honeymoon and began work as a field representative in the Newark office of Social Security on Jan. 1, 1939, for $1,620 a year.

Within 13 years, he was its chief civil servant and by 1956 helped persuade Congress to create Social Security disability insurance, despite President Dwight D. Eisenhower's opposition. By 1962, he became commissioner, a job he held longer than anyone else before or since.

He was appointed by President John F. Kennedy, reappointed twice by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and again by President Richard M. Nixon before resigning in 1973.

As a visiting scholar at the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, he helped shape the Carter administration's 1977 Social Security proposals that also improved the program's financing. Although out of office, he kept a watchful eye on the program, working behind the scenes to defeat President Ronald Reagan's first attempt to slash benefits.

Appointed by then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D) to a bipartisan commission to solve Social Security's financial problems, Mr. Ball worked with the panel's chairman, Alan Greenspan, to ensure that the whole package was acceptable; at one point, the American Scholar article said, Mr. Ball slid down a snowy slope behind his suburban Washington home to have a secret rendezvous at the White House.

The 1983 amendments that stemmed from the Greenspan Commission were the last major piece of Social Security legislation passed in the 20th century, historians said.

Mr. Ball also headed off proposals in 1996, from his living room headquarters, to privatize Social Security, and he worked to defeat President Bush's 2004 plan to reshape Social Security by allowing younger workers to invest their taxes in private accounts.

Mr. Ball enjoyed hiking, water sports, badminton and reading history and literature. He was also the subject of a book, "Robert Ball and the Politics of Social Security" (2003) by Edward D. Berkowitz.

Survivors include his wife of 71 years, Doris McCord Ball of Mitchellville; two children, Robert Jonathan Ball of Cazenovia, N.Y., and Jacqueline Ball Smith of Merritt, N.H.; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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