THE Obama administration has delayed Keystone XL pipeline approval for years. Watching this seemingly endless process, you might conclude the administration simply can't get things done. Would that this were true!
The administration has no similar hesitation in facilitating rapid approval of dubious Social Security disability payments, which was made clear at a recent hearing conducted by a U.S. House subcommittee chaired by Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City.
Payments from the Social Security Disability Insurance Program are meant for those who can no longer work. But the program has become a de facto unemployment program. Individuals whose disability claims are initially denied can appeal to an administrative law judge (ALJ). Even though an ALJ typically sees applicants who've been denied benefits, the majority of the judges approve more than half the cases they see. Nearly 200 of them have approval rates of 75 percent or more.
This high approval rate appears the result of emphasizing speed over accuracy. Glenn Sklar, deputy commissioner of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, proudly told lawmakers that the average wait for a hearing decision has dropped from more than 500 days in 2007 to 375 days in 2013. Technology use is credited for the improvement.
But Sklar also acknowledged the agency has set a “disposition goal” for administrative law judges. “Specifically, we informed the entire ALJ corps of our expectation that they should issue between 500 and 700 legally sufficient dispositions annually,” Sklar said.
Critics say the quota promotes fast decision-making over informed decision-making. U.S. Administrative Law Judge J.E. Sullivan bluntly called it “a factory-type ‘production' process.” Sullivan said ALJs are pressured to “engage in a superficial ‘guessing' process to decide disability cases.” He described one training session where ALJs were advised, “Don't be afraid” to stop reading the evidence in disability hearings. They were also advised they could largely ignore physical therapy notes, chiropractic notes, hospital records and Department of Veterans Affairs' records.
Judge Drew A. Swank said that between 2007 and 2010, the number of Social Security disability benefits awarded rose 28 percent. “While an increase in staff could explain more cases being paid, as more cases are being processed overall, it does not logically explain an increase in the approval rate or percentage of cases being awarded benefits,” Swank said.
Sullivan said the process forces Americans to pay “millions of dollars in the issuance of poorly considered and rushed decisions granting disability benefits.” Larry J. Butler, a U.S. administrative law judge, said the average value of a disability award is about $300,000, including all benefits and associated eligibility for other programs. Therefore, any judge hitting the suggested quota “on an annual basis is determining the disposition of in excess of $150,000,000 in taxpayer funds.”
Thanks to granting payments to countless numbers of previously rejected individuals with questionable disability claims, the federal disability insurance program is now expected to go bankrupt by 2016.
Thus, the Keystone pipeline and the disability program starkly illustrate the Obama management philosophy. When given the chance to burn through taxpayer money in a way that discourages work, increases dependency and ultimately deprives the truly disabled of funds, the Obama administration moves like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. But when given the chance to grow the economy and create jobs through the pipeline's approval, this administration acts with the vigor of a sloth on Dramamine.