The right sharpens its knives for Social Security disability, again

Rep. Darrell Issa, left: The hunt for scapegoats never ends.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

As we all know, the official animal of Washington, D.C., is the scapegoat. Today’s example is Carolyn W. Colvin, the acting commissioner of Social Security.

Colvin recently was raked over the coals by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, the capital’s chief scapegoat wrangler, for problems at Social Security that can largely be traced to its budget squeeze. In other words, to Congress.

In a letter to Colvin, who has been acting commissioner since February 2013 and has been nominated to take over the job officially, Issa blamed her for a backlog of disability reviews that dates back to before 2007 and that is directly related to Congress’ failure to provide for enough administrative law judges to handle the workload.


But the politics of Issa’s attack goes beyond mere personnel matters. What he’s really up to is promoting the conservative attack on the disabled. That’s clear from the report that Issa’s House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform issued in conjunction with his letter to Colvin. The disability program is within a year or two of needing an infusion of cash; the conservatives’ goal plainly is to undermine the program’s credibility so they can cut it, instead of supporting America’s disabled with resources they need.

Issa’s report repeated the GOP’s increasingly familiar grievances about Social Security disability--in fact, much of it was based on a very similar report issued last year by Republicans on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

That report was the basis of a “60 Minutes” segment that didn’t tell viewers much about the reality of the Social Security Disability program, though it did speak volumes about the collapse of journalistic standards at “60 Minutes” (as I documented here). The “60 Minutes” segment, in turn, is cited in Issa’s report. You see how the carousel keeps spinning around?

Issa’s case, typically, is based on false assumptions and filled with bogus math, most of it designed to look frightful. Its core assumption is that the disability program is overrun by slackers who see it as an easy way to skip out on work, abetted by administrative law judges who rubber-stamp their claims without asking for evidence.

This picture has been debunked over and over again; it’s a measure of Issa’s dereliction as a supposed government “watchdog” that he doesn’t care. But let’s once again set the record straight, as has been done over the past year or so by eight former Social Security commissioners, experienced analysts of the program, and the chief actuary of Social Security:

The sharp rise in disability claims in recent years is due entirely to the aging of the U.S. population, to the influx of women into the workplace, to a broader recognition of conditions that legitimately qualify as disabling under the law, and to economic conditions that have made it harder for disabled persons to find work they can do. It is not due to “rubber-stamping” administrative law judges.


Disability approval is not easy to obtain--only about 40% of all claimants are approved, even after all appeals. It is not a way to get rich--the average stipend is about $1,146 a month.

As Jerry Mashaw, a social welfare expert at Yale Law School, put it some years ago, it’s unlikely that someone able to work will voluntarily opt instead for disability benefits “that pay (on average) one-third of the mean wage, require a six-month waiting period for application, a two-year waiting period for medical benefits, and provide any benefit to fewer than one-half of those who apply.”

Issa’s report twists all these facts and figures to create a fantasy of a program running amuck. He says “an extraordinary number” of administrative judges “were allowing the vast majority of their decisions”; in fact the overall approval rate of cases that come before the judges is 58%.

Issa’s implication is that almost all the applicants approved by these judges are unworthy. He’s hoping to shock taxpayers by stating that between 2005 and 2013, the judges “placed over 3.2 million people on federal disability programs at a total cost of nearly one trillion dollars.”

There’s a good lesson there in how to turn a modest number into a scary one. Issa arrives at $1 trillion by multiplying 3.2 million by $300,000, which is the estimate of some MIT researchers of the present value cost of disability and Medicare for the typical disability recipient. The real value? The MIT researchers use $1,120 a month in disability payments. But that figure wouldn’t serve Issa’s purpose of making the cost of disability seem horrific.

Issa doesn’t leave any doubt about where he’s going with this. Social Security Disability is likely to run out of money in 2016; at that point the most obvious fix would be to shift some money from Social Security’s retirement fund to disability, as Congress has done in the past.

In his letter to Colvin, Issa signaled his hostility to this option. He tried to place all the blame for the program’s ills on the Social Security Administration. “A bailout of the disability fund after at least a decade of serious agency mismanagement and at the expense of the SSA retirement program, without meaningful reforms to a broken appeals not a responsible solution.”

Can you see what’s coming? He’s talking about cutting disability grants or denying appeals. Disability advocates better bulk up now for the coming battle to preserve America’s promise to take care of its disabled population; it’s going to be a hard and ugly fight.

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