As we commemorate Social Security’s 84th anniversary, lawmakers are working to reverse a brazen attempt by the Trump administration to undermine the rights of Social Security disability claimants. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have introduced a bipartisan bill protecting the independence of the administrative law judges (ALJs) who preside over disability insurance appeals. The ALJ Competitive Service Restoration Act is a companion bill to legislation introduced by Rep. Elijah Cummings in the House. Last year, President Trump issued an executive order creating the opportunity for ALJs to be chosen based on their political beliefs instead of more time-honored, objective criteria.
“Administrative law judges perform very important roles for Social Security cases, and it’s essential that they remain independent and not politically influenced in making decisions… They should be knowledgeable about the subject area they’re overseeing and without any conflict of interest.” – Sen. Maria Cantwell
The Senators’ bill effectively overturns Trump’s executive order by moving AJLs back into “competitive service,” ensuring that they are chosen based on their qualifications – unlike political appointees who are not subject to the same criteria. The National Committee supports the new legislation out of concern that politically-appointed ALJs might deny claimants benefits based on ideology rather than the merits of the case.
The executive order is part of an effort to undermine Social Security Disability Insurance itself. The administration’s proposed 2019 budget included more than $64 billion in cuts to SSDI. And Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has argued (disingenuously) that SSDI is not really part of Social Security – a verbal sleight of hand designed to exempt the program from candidate Trump’s repeated promises not to cut Social Security.
Like Social Security retirement and Medicare, SSDI is an earned benefit. Workers can’t collect disability unless they have paid into Social Security for a required amount of time. By various means, the Trump administration is trying to cut benefits that rightfully belong to workers.
This is in keeping with the administration’s insensitivity – some would say cruelty – toward vulnerable populations, including disabled workers. Claimants apply for SSDI because they cannot work due to serious mental or physical disabilities. These include:
* Musculoskeletal problems
* Cardiovascular conditions
* Vision and hearing loss
* MS, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy
* Depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia
* HIV/AIDS, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
Even so, eligibility standards are stringent. Only about 40% of SSDI applications are approved. Claimants who are denied benefits can request a hearing before an administrative law judge. Because Congress chronically underfunded SSA operations from 2010-2017, wait times for disability hearings escalated – up to two years in some cases. Thousands of claimants have died waiting for hearings.
The National Committee believes it’s imperative that once a worker finally receives a hearing, the presiding administrative law judge be fair and impartial, and not politically motivated. The president’s order sabotages that expectation; the Senators’ bill would guarantee a fair process for the millions of Americans whose disabilities prevent them from working.