From Deep in the Dark Heart of Texas: GOP Scheme to Cut Social Security Foiled

Deep in the Dark Heart of Texas Representative Sam Johnson (R-TX3) had a great idea to find some offset money for the government to use for highway construction – or as the Congressman was pleased to say “fight crime and save taxpayer dollars.” [Johnson]  The idea is to cut Social Security benefits from those who have outstanding warrants for felonies, and superficially this might sound like a good idea. It isn’t a good idea and it was quashed when Senate Democrats put a spotlight on the notion and threatened to pull support from the Federal highway bill. [HuffPo]

Now why would someone go and crunch this crime fighting taxpayer dollar saving idea?

#1. It’s not like we’re paying benefits to Jack the Ripper: “Large numbers of those who will lose benefits had warrants routinely issued when they were unable to pay a fine or court fee or probation supervision fee. Eliminating what may be their only source of income does not help resolve these issues.”

And: “Many people never know that a warrant has been issued for them as warrants are often not served on the individual.”

And: “These warrants are often not easily resolved since many of those who lose benefits live far from the issuing jurisdiction.”  [JIA]

The aforementioned problems mean that the stage is set for the withdrawal of benefits from some elderly or disabled person who was in poverty in the first place (witness the unpaid fees or fines), who may not even know there is an outstanding warrant, and may not be able to resolve the warrant because it could have been issued years ago and miles away.

#2. The Social Security Administration’s gotten itself in trouble with the complexities of this situations before.  See: Martinez v. Astrue and Clark v. Astrue. [Proskauer]

The order is the culmination of more than five years of litigation in Clark v. Astrue – Docket No. 06-15521 (S.D.N.Y.) – a case brought against the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) challenging its practice of relying exclusively on outstanding probation and parole warrants as sufficient evidence that individuals are in fact violating a condition of probation or parole as a basis for denying them benefits. Rather than check the facts of a case, SSA merely matched warrant databases against its records. When it found a probation or parole warrant in the name of someone who was receiving benefits, SSA checked with law enforcement and, if the law enforcement agency was not actively pursuing the individual, SSA would cut off that individual’s benefits.

In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the agency’s practice of relying solely on outstanding probation or parole violation arrest warrants to suspend or deny benefits conflicted with the plain meaning of the Social Security Act. Under Judge Stein’s order, the SSA is enjoined from denying or suspending benefits in this manner and must reinstate all previously suspended benefits retroactive to the date the benefits were suspended. The SSA has until June 12, 2012, to submit a plan setting forth its anticipated time frames for implementing the terms of the order. […]

“The unlawful policy caused widespread suffering while it was in effect. Elaine Clark, one of the lead plaintiffs, had her benefits stopped in the beginning of 2006 because of a warrant from Santa Clara County, CA, where she had been sentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution as a result of an embezzlement charge. During that time, she was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease on top of other ailments and was no longer able to work. Unable to get a kidney transplant in California, she returned to her hometown of Buffalo, NY, when she learned the waiting time there would be far less. Although she obtained the transplant, she was still in need of extensive medical care and unable to work. Her modest Social Security benefit was barely enough to pay the rent at the long-term care facility and not sufficient to pay the required restitution. Ms. Clark died in 2008 at the age of 65. All the while, law enforcement officials in California knew where she was and knew of her condition, and had no interest in pursuing her.” (emphasis added)

Information from the Social Security Administration concerning the cases and the settlement is as follows:

“If your Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Special Veterans Benefits (SVB) were suspended due to a felony arrest warrant, the Martinez settlement might offer you relief and reinstatement. On September 24, 2009, the United States District Court in the Northern District of California approved a nationwide class action settlement agreement in the case of Martinez v. Astrue. The Martinez settlement changes the types of felony arrest warrants that we will use to prohibit payment of Social Security, SSI, and Special Veterans benefits. This settlement does not apply to persons whose benefits we denied or stopped because of an arrest warrant due to a parole or probation violation.”

Thus, the SSA is already doing what the CUFF bill specified (proscribing benefits from those with parole and probation violations) and the remainder who would be affected are those individuals who are in that nebulous category of non-payment of fines and fees category.

#3. The amendment implies that Social Security benefits are paid from “taxpayers,” and in a sense they are, those benefits are paid by working people who paid for those benefits in payroll taxes, including those who have those outstanding warrants for non-payment of fines and fees.  Further, the amendment is a vehicle for moving payroll tax dollars out of Social Security and into general appropriations – and here I thought all along that the Republicans were all for “saving” Social Security?   The point was emphasized by an organization formed to protect the Social Security program:

“The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare hailed the decision to drop the provision. “Dropping the Social Security cuts from the Highway bill is the first encouraging sign we’ve seen from this Congress, when it comes to Social Security & Medicare, this year,” coalition spokeswoman Kim Wright said in an email. “We certainly hope they’ve finally realized using these programs as an ATM for everything else under the sun simple won’t fly with seniors who’ve paid into these programs their entire working lives.” [HuffPo]

It was a bad idea, but it’s not one which may stay out of sight and mind.  The CUFFS bill is part of the old “law and order” stable of increasingly outmoded nags hauled out for a periodic run by Republican jockeys.   It bears watching.

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