The real problem with SSDI? Congress

We expect the critics of the Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) program will be coming out of the woodwork over the revelations of a “fraud bust” involving more than 100 people last week. The Wall Street Journal notes that Congress is pressuring the Social Security Administration (SSA) to “rework the system” for determining how beneficiaries are awarded.

The justification for that pressure, however, is often suspect. While the most recent fraud case is rather ostentatious, in the big picture of the SSDI program’s total payout, which in 2012 approached $140 billion, this incident is hardly the reason the program is facing a shortfall of money in the near future.

Congress, which contains many of the programs harshest critics, carries virtually all of the responsibility for that shortfall. They increased eligibility for the program, and rightfully so, over the last two decades.

The SSDI program provides a very necessary benefit for many disabled workers, and for many is far from generous. Nevertheless, the growth of the number of beneficiaries is a necessary outcome of such expansions.

While the administrative law judges are often blamed for being too lax in restricting SSDI benefits, again Congress bears much of the culpability. As the program grew, the SSA had difficulty handling the volume, and because of many hiring freezes and other congressionally imposed budget limits, ALJs saw their workloads grow until some were unmanageable.

Certainly, some ALJs probably approved some cases with minimal review. They may not have had much choice, as they were pressured to push through as many decisions as possible to reduce the backlog.

Given the current climate in Congress, we fear this latest incident will merely provoke more outcries for cuts to SSDI; adequately funding the agency would be the best means of reducing fraud.