Ranking Member Larson Opening Statement at Oversight-Social Security Joint Subcommittee Hearing on Representative Payee Program
(Remarks as prepared)
I am pleased that we are having a two-part hearing series on the Representative Payee program at the Social Security Administration (SSA). Representative payees serve the most vulnerable of SSA’s 66 million beneficiaries – over 4 million minor children, and almost 4 million adults with physical or mental impairments that are so severe they cannot manage their own benefits. This includes seniors with dementia and disabled adults with severe mental illnesses or significant intellectual disabilities.
While it is important to focus on the payee program, I would like to address last week’s vote on the House floor that was related to this issue and exemplified bad process and speaks to why so many members on our side are frustrated.
Last week, we voted on a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution that eliminated a process for SSA to report to the national gun-safety background-check system the names of individuals who are not eligible to buy firearms because of a severe mental incapacity. That is a requirement of existing law: individuals with severe mental incapacity are not allowed to own guns. Without even holding a hearing, the majority put the cart before the horse and used a fast-track procedural tactic to weaken the background check system that protects Americans from having firearms fall into the wrong hands.
We have a serious gun violence problem in this country but we can’t even get a vote on common sense measures to prevent gun violence. We stand in silence, we say a prayer, and we do nothing. Instead, last week we saw the pitting of the disability community against the victims of gun violence. The American people deserve to have a vote on universal background checks and they deserve to have a vote on no-fly, no-by. That’s why Democrats went to the floor last year to sit in and demand a vote and that is why this concern persists.
I strongly support the disability community and respect their concerns. Democrats are willing to work across the aisle to improve SSA’s rule and strengthen due process. However, passing this resolution will not only repeal SSA’s rule, but it will prevent SSA and potentially all other federal agencies from improving reporting to the NICS background check system in the future.
That is why I requested as a witness Lindsay Nichols from Americans for Responsible Solutions, the organization that former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords founded. I asked ARS to testify today to set the record straight about why that reporting was necessary and how it would have protected Americans while respecting due process rights. I appreciate her coming today.
I am also pleased to have the other three witnesses distinguished witnesses today who can explain how SSA evaluates whether an individual requires a payee, discuss some concerns about this process, and tell us about the improvements SSA has made in light of these recommendations. SSA appoints a representative payee to ensure that the benefits are used to care for the beneficiary. Because these are the most vulnerable of all of SSA’s beneficiaries, it is critically important that SSA does it right.
Like all else that SSA does right now – from answering the phones, to conducting hearings for disability benefits– the representative payee system is under strain because SSA is operating with inadequate resources and fewer staff than it needs to do the job at the level that Americans deserve.
That is why it is critical for this committee to address the cuts to SSA’s operating budget to ensure that it can properly serve those who have earned these benefits. Over the last decade, SSA has seen a 10 million person increase in beneficiaries due to baby boomers. Yet since 2010, its operating budget has been reduced by 10% adjusted for inflation. Because of funding cuts, the average wait time for a disability appeal hearing is now 545 days. I hope we can all agree that 545 days is too long to wait. I am pleased that we have been able to dedicate funding towards going after waste, fraud, and abuse, but it is equally important that we don’t ask SSA to do more with less when it comes to serving beneficiaries.
SSA needs to appoint a payee who will not misuse the benefits, and let them know how to do their job properly. It needs to monitor payees to make sure the benefits are being used to care for the recipient. If there is a problem, SSA needs to be able to change the payee.
SSA’s monitoring of payees is especially sensitive, because there have been some horrific cases of abuse by payees. It is vitally important that this monitoring be done by organizations that have experience and expertise in working with disabled individuals. This is so important that Congress included an explicit directive to SSA on this point in appropriations language.
I am glad that we have a bipartisan, bicameral history of working together to improve the program and I look forward to continuing to do so in the future.