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Johnson Opening Statement: Hearing on the Financing Challenges Facing the Social Security Disability Insurance Program

March 14, 2013

Good morning and welcome to our first Subcommittee hearing of the 113th Congress.

I want to first introduce our new Subcommittee Members, Mr. Griffin, Mr. Renacci, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Thompson, and Ms. Schwartz.  Welcome aboard!  I look forward to working with each of you.

We begin our work during a time when the government is operating under a  sequester, proposed by the President and agreed to on a bipartisan basis as part of the Budget Control Act in August 2011.  The House twice passed legislation to replace the President’s plan with smarter and more responsible cuts.  Unfortunately, the President and the Senate ignored it.

Right now, America is over $16 trillion in debt.  That means every American owes more than $52,000.  Now is the time to work together to stop spending money we do not have. Like every American family and business, Social Security is challenged to tighten its belt and live within its means.  The fiscal facts are that:

  1. Under sequester, Social Security needs to reduce its operating budget by 3.35 percent, not the 5 percent cut all other domestic agencies must sustain.  There are a lot of families and businesses in my district who have had to cut their budgets far more.
  2. Social Security’s operating budget has increased by 46 percent over fiscal years 2003 – 2013;
  3. The Stimulus provided an additional $1 billion to Social Security; and
  4. The President cut the Commissioner’s proposed fiscal year 2013 operating budget by 6 percent before it was submitted to the Congress — the largest such cut made by President Obama during his four years. 

And let me be clear, even with Social Security having to tighten its belt, benefits will continue to be paid.

Today we will hear the latest information about the financing challenges facing the Social Security disability insurance program.  This hearing will build on the good work of this Subcommittee last Congress when we held a hearing series on securing the future of the disability insurance program.  Then we learned about the predictable, yet striking and unrestrained growth of the program and the reasons for it.  

At a time when workers paying into the system have increased over 72 percent between 1970 and 2012, the number of people collecting disability checks has increased by over 300 percent, from 2.7 million to 10.9 million. By 2023, the number of beneficiaries will grow to 12.3 million and total benefits paid will reach over $213 billion.  That’s a 57 percent increase over the $135 billion paid in benefits in 2012.  And unless Congress acts, in 2016 – just three years from now – disabled workers who can least afford it will be at risk of a 21 percent cut in their benefit checks.  We don’t have much time, we must act now.  

Some of that growth is predictable because of an increase in the size of the overall workforce, the entry of more women in the workforce, and the aging of the baby boomers into their disability-prone years.  And some of the growth is a consequence of Congress’s decisions decades ago to expand the ways in which people could qualify for disability.   

Our witnesses today will explain these numbers further, including the impact disability insurance has on other Federal spending, along with how the makeup of those receiving benefits has changed.  In the hearing series, we also heard about the people who try to defraud the system by falsely claiming they are disabled.  We heard that Social Security’s efforts to conduct continuing eligibility reviews take a back seat to handling the growing workloads.  That choice keeps costs higher, resulting in wasted taxpayer dollars and weakens public trust in the program.  We heard how last century’s view of disability hasn’t kept up with this century’s advances in medicine, technology, and the workplace, resulting in a program that pays people not to work. 

GAO’s High Risk Series Update issued just last month keeps the “high-risk” designation on the DI program because the medical criteria and occupational information relied on to make benefit decisions are still out-of-date.  The fact that the DI program has been on this high risk list for 10 years is shameful.  

In the hearing series we also heard how important it is to make the right decision as early in the process as possible.  We walked through the lengthy and open-ended initial determination and appeals process that enables claimant representatives to drag out appeals in hopes of getting an award.  We heard how “outlier” judges who award disability benefits in most of the cases they hear can’t be managed or questioned about the decisions they are making on behalf of the agency, encouraging a process where who makes the decision and where you live may mean more than the medical evidence in the file.  We also heard how the courts have taken it upon themselves to reinterpret Congress’s will, creating inequities and inconsistencies in this program.  We heard over and over that we must keep this program strong for those who truly cannot work– and I know that’s important to everyone in this room.

Recently Dr. Ben Carson, an individual who overcame serious obstacles to become an accomplished neurosurgeon, commented that Americans are so concerned with political correctness that we are losing our ability to speak and hear the truth.   We all want to do the right thing by those who can no longer work because of a serious illness or injury, yet in 2016 there won’t be enough revenues to pay full benefits.  Disabilities have a devastating effect on individuals and their families and every dollar of those disability checks matter.  

It’s time to speak the truth, work together, stay on target, and fix the disability program once and for all.