Thursday, February 12, 2015

Help wanted: leadership to save disability safety net -- Feb. 12, 2015 column


The nation’s safety net for the disabled will be forced to cut benefits by nearly 20 percent next year, unless Congress acts.

So what’s the new Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee doing about the problem? Blaming President Barack Obama.  

And what’s the top Democrat on the committee doing? Blaming Republicans.

Here we go again.

Obama’s “effort to paper over the problem is a classic example of Washington ducking a real American need,” charged Budget chairman Mike Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, as he opened a committee hearing Wednesday on the “coming crisis” in the disability insurance program.

But liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont countered: “Republicans are manufacturing a phony crisis in Social Security in order to cut the earned benefits of millions of the most vulnerable people in this country.”

Sanders, technically an independent, is weighing a presidential bid. He issued a report Tuesday with the provocative title: “Republican Efforts to Cut Social Security Benefits Pit Disabled Americans Against Senior Citizens.”

The disability program’s looming insolvency has been predicted since 1994. In December of next year, the disability trust fund will be depleted, triggering automatic benefit cuts of 19 percent for the nearly 11 million disabled workers and their families who receive disability payments.

“I don’t want to be dramatic,” acting Social Security Administrator Carolyn Colvin told the budget committee, but such a cut for disabled people whose average monthly benefit is $1,200 would be “a death sentence.”

Fireworks aside, helping the disabled is an issue on which Democrats and Republicans have agreed recently and can again, if someone – anyone – will take the risk of forging a bipartisan consensus.  

Last December, the Senate and House passed by wide margins and Obama signed into law the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which allows families with a disabled child to save for long-term care through tax-sheltered savings accounts similar to 529 accounts families use to save for college.

Action was far from quick; the ABLE bill was first introduced in 2006. But 85 percent of Congress signed on as cosponsors, even after the conservative Heritage Foundation complained that the bill was “a decisive step in expanding the welfare state.”

To shore up disability’s finances, Obama proposes reallocating a portion of payroll taxes from the retirement trust fund to the disability fund. Lawmakers have approved reallocations from one fund to the other 11 times, most recently in 1994.

But one of the first actions by House Republicans in the new Congress was to pass a rule making reallocation contingent on measures to improve Social Security’s overall solvency. Republicans say reallocation is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul and fails to solve the crisis; Democrats say the new rule is a stealth attack on Social Security.

Sanders says there’s no crisis because the Social Security trust fund has enough to pay all benefits to all recipients for 18 years. He also says it’s time to raise the income cap on the Social Security payroll tax to $250,000, from the current $118,500.  

Obama did not mention Social Security in his State of the Union address, but he has included proposals in his budget to encourage workers with disabilities to stay in the workforce, a goal many Democrats and Republicans support.  

The president proposed testing new strategies, including services to support those with mental impairments and incentives for employers, to help people with disabilities remain at work.

He called for reducing disability benefits to offset state or federal unemployment insurance payments and adding money for continuing disability reviews. These reviews, required every three to seven years, determine whether workers remain disabled. The Social Security Administration says the reviews save $9 for every $1 spent.

Republican Enzi said he was encouraged that “buried deep in the president’s budget are a few programs that might be a grudging acknowledgment” that more can be done to create a disability system that supports work.

But what was missing as Enzi opened the fight over disability was what steps he would take to stabilize the program.Obama’s proposals may be baby steps, but surely Enzi, who has a reputation as a level-headed legislator, could build on them to ensure that those who can return to work do so and those who are unable to work get the help they deserve.

(c) 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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