Two congressional committees took aim today at the Social Security Administration for how its administrative law judges decide disability claims, following reports that a handful of judges fall well outside the norm.
During a hearing, lawmakers sparred over the scope of the problem and whether Social Security’s leadership has enough authority to discipline judges who apply disability standards incorrectly. Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) said many of the judges are conscientious and hard-working, but that they enjoy a “near-complete lack of accountability” because of the cumbersome process for removing them.
Coble is chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee on the federal courts that held the joint hearing with a House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. He said Congress should consider several changes to the law governing the Social Security judges, including how they are selected and how they are reviewed.
Democrats expressed fear that the hearing was a veiled attempt to advocate for benefits cuts, and they urged Republicans in the majority to move slowly. “We should be very cautious about making changes that could deny beneficiaries due process,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means subcommittee.
In May, The Wall Street Journal highlighted the example of David Daugherty, an administrative law judge hearing claims for disability benefits in West Virginia. During one recent six-month period, Daugherty approved payments in every case he decided, compared to a nationwide average of about half that. He was placed on administrative leave.
This month, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University, released an analysis suggesting other disparities. The group and the Social Security Administration later put out rival public statements over the accuracy of the findings.
Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue told lawmakers today that 58 administrative law judges have been disciplined since he became head of the agency in 2007. The cause, he said, is often that they failed to decide enough cases. To remove a judge, the agency must go through a process run by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates many employment claims involving the federal government.