President Trump is making sure to wreak as much havoc on Social Security as he can in the final months of his term. In August, he unilaterally deferred workers’ share of payroll taxes, pledging to “terminate” Social Security’s main funding source if re-elected. Now, in the wake of Joe Biden’s victory, the Trump administration is trying to make it harder for workers with disabilities to collect Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is finalizing two new rules that, in the words of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), “would weaken the promise of Social Security for Americans struggling with a disability.” One rule would replace the administrative law judges (ALJs) who decide disability appeal cases with politically-motivated agency lawyers. ALJ’s are impartial; SSA attorneys may try to deny benefits based on ideology rather than the needs of disabled workers.
The second rule would add a new level of Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs), imposing an unnecessary burden on disabled beneficiaries to prove that they are still eligible — and may cause some to lose their benefits altogether.
The Trump administration first floated these rules in late 2019. We and other Social Security advocates pushed back hard, pointing out that the rules represent an extra hurdle for Americans with disabilities. Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance committee, labeled the administration’s actions as “harassment of people with disabilities.” Others have called the new rules just plain “mean.”
The rules are mean because SSDI beneficiaries already receive extremely modest benefits (averaging less than $15,000 per year, barely above the federal poverty line). There is a lingering, insidious myth propagated in conservative circles that SSDI payments to go ‘malingerers’ who do not qualify for benefits, but continue receiving money they do not deserve. This is simply not true. Numerous congressional hearings and investigations have not uncovered widespread abuse of SSDI.
Few policymakers appreciate this issue better than me, Sen. Harkin, who was tapped by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to craft the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). I knew firsthand the challenges facing people with disabilities as his brother had been deaf from an early age. Whether deaf or suffering from myriad other physical and mental disabilities, those on SSDI cannot afford to lose their benefits; nor can they afford attorneys to help them navigate a newly harsh and politicized disability claims process.
The association representing administrative law judges strongly opposes Trump’s efforts to politicize the disability adjudication process, calling it a “different and radical approach” that compromises “hard-working Americans’ need (for) fairness and reason.”
The incoming Biden administration could rescind or revise Trump’s rules, which are scheduled to take effect on Dec.16. Unfortunately, the list of rules from the Trump administration that need to be reversed will be quite long.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) introduced a bill to override an executive order President Trump issued in 2018, “removing the Office of Personnel Management from the ALJ hiring process and granting hiring discretion to executive branch department heads.” The Senate legislation mirrors a bipartisan bill introduced in the House. Though this legislation does not address the two rules that the administration is finalizing, it is a reminder that the new Congress could also intervene to reverse Trump’s anti-SSDI policies.
Hopefully, the end of the Trump administration will also be the end of attempts to undermine Social Security through executive action. It is hard to imagine Joe Biden, who has called Social Security a “sacred obligation,” directing the Social Security Administration to make it harder for Americans to collect the benefits they’ve rightfully earned. Quite the contrary, the president-elect has pledged to expand and strengthen Social Security. One of his first priorities in this regard should be reversing the Trump administration’s mean-spirited rules aimed squarely at some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Tom Harkin is a former U.S. Senator from Iowa, founder of the Harkin Institute, and chair of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare advisory board. Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.