Politics & Policy

A Problematic SSA Commissioner

Carolyn Watts Colvin (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Carolyn Watts Colvin faces a serious nomination fight.

Widespread abuses within the Social Security Administration’s disability system are becoming a point of contention as the Senate weighs the nomination of Carolyn Watts Colvin as the agency’s commissioner.

Some congressional Democrats have already taken issue with Colvin, who has served as the acting commissioner since February 2013, because she presided over staffing cuts and field-office closures. And earlier this week, Republican members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wrote a letter harshly criticizing Colvin. “We’d expect that [Colvin] will be pressed on her track record, including the agency’s allowance of hundreds of [administrative-law judges] to rubber-stamp claimants onto disability over the past decade,” says Becca Glover Watkins, the communications director for the committee.

The number of Americans on disability has risen in recent years, and a Senate report recently found that about one-fourth of benefits were improperly awarded. That’s creating big financial problems for the federal program, which is on track to run out of money for existing claims by 2016.

Last month, the oversight committee released a report that found 191 SSA judges had granted disability benefits in 85 percent or more of the cases they decided, awarding approximately $153 billion in lifetime benefits between 2005 and 2013 alone. 

The report paid special attention to two judges who continue to decide disability cases, despite especially egregious behavior. Charles Bridges has singlehandedly approved approximately $4.5 billion in benefits since 2005. Lawyers in his Harrisburg, Pa., region picked clients assigned to Bridges, regardless of the cases’ merits and based solely on the judge’s notoriety for indiscriminately approving benefits — a lucrative policy, given that they receive a cut of the initial benefit award. Meanwhile, another administrative-law judge, Harry Taylor, awarded about $2.5 billion in disability benefits, even as the SSA received complaints that he was sexually harassing female colleagues and sleeping during hearings.

In their letter Tuesday to Colvin, Representatives Darrell Issa, James Lankford, and Jim Jordan pointed out that Colvin had the authority to put both Bridges and Taylor on administrative leave but had failed to do so, despite repeated performance reviews that suggested both judges had violated SSA policies and indiscriminately awarded benefits.

“Your failure to take action in these clear-cut cases raises serious questions about your willingness to take necessary steps to reduce the rampant mismanagement, waste and misspending on federal disability programs,” wrote Issa, Lankford, and Jordan. “Moreover, the small number of cases that you have filed . . . about problematic [SSA disability judges] raises serious questions about the agency’s commitment to hold blatantly, failing employees accountable.”

The letter said Colvin had been “unable to name one area of increased authority or flexibility that would help [her] protect taxpayer dollars,” also criticizing her for offering conflicting testimony about whether the agency had a quota for the number of cases that judges should hear each year.

The representatives also blasted Colvin for not watching a well-known 60 Minutes report on abuse of the disability system and for stating incorrect statistics about the number of disability beneficiaries.

“We were troubled by your level of preparation to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the serious challenges with your agency’s management of the federal disability programs and its [judges],” the letter says, also claiming that Colvin’s recent testimony about the disability system “raised serious questions about the agency’s willingness to confront the problems of rapidly rising disability rolls.”

The disability system’s problems are expected to be one of many hurdles for Colvin during the confirmation hearings, as both parties have their qualms about her performance. Further creating the possibility for a scrappy confirmation process, the hearings will likely occur during a heated election cycle.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

Jillian Kay Melchior — Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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