A Repair Plan for the Social Security Disability Insurance Program | Commentary

If our combined 40 years in Congress has taught us anything, it is that policymakers rarely deal with problems until the last possible minute.

For the Social Security Disability Insurance program, that deadline is only two years away. In the last few months of 2016, the SSDI trust fund is expected to run out of money, resulting in an immediate 20 percent across-the-board cut in benefits. As the former chairmen of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, we see the urgency clearly. That’s why the two of us have joined together on a bipartisan basis to launch the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative.

The initiative will solicit ideas for concrete and practical reforms that improve aspects of the SSDI program. The proposed ideas will be subject to a rigorous review process, presented at a conference in 2015 and then published along with recommendations from the initiative co-chairmen.

The 20 percent cut in benefits disabled beneficiaries face would be mindless, unfair and traumatic — and must be avoided; But how we avoid it matters. In our view, any solution should include improvements to the SSDI program so that it better serves its beneficiaries, the workers who pay into the program and the economy as a whole.

Some advocates suggest we should simply reallocate funds currently dedicated to the Social Security old-age program to the disability insurance program, leaving both programs on a path to run out of money in the early 2030s. We’re not sure a clean reallocation — unaccompanied by reforms — is politically viable, particularly with insolvency of the old-age program within sight.

But more importantly, we see it as a wasted opportunity. As critical as the SSDI program is to many beneficiaries, it is not working as well as it could. And those of us who care about the program have an obligation to improve it.

As we’ve studied this issue — both as Members of Congress and later as private citizens — we’ve identified areas where the SSDI program is falling short. The determination process is arduous and uneven, the eligibility criteria are outdated, coordination with related programs is minimal, there is little assistance or incentive for workers with disabilities who would like to remain in (or return to) the workforce, and cases of fraud not only cost the program money, but undermine its public support. On top of all this, the program faces a deficit between its projected costs and its revenue stream.

Yet the biggest deficit we’ve identified isn’t financial — it’s a deficit of knowledge and consensus on how to improve the program to best serve those who count on it.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers. No one does. The purpose of the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative is to get the best thinkers on this issue to offer concrete, practical and implementable changes that can move the program in the right direction.

The SSDI program is vital to millions of Americans with physical or mental disabilities who rely on its modest benefits to pay their bills and live lives of dignity. We do not take changes to the program lightly. At the same time, we must recognize the need for some changes. Denying the problem will not make it go away, and if policymakers wait until the last minute to start cobbling together solutions, they could make things far worse.

Ideally, the projected 2016 date for the trust fund depletion would be used as an opportunity for Congress to enact comprehensive Social Security reform that improves both the old-age and disability programs and makes them solvent for future generations. This would allow for consideration of interactions between the two programs and a discussion of trade-offs between benefits and revenues, though even under this approach there is a need for viable policy options to improve the SSDI program.

At a minimum, any reallocation, interfund borrowing or revenue transfer to shore up the SSDI trust fund should be accompanied by improvements to that program.

There are more than 150 million American workers protected by this program and 11 million currently receiving payments as a result of disabilities. They and all Americans — all 315 million of us — deserve an open process to bring forward fresh and substantive ideas on how to address this once and for all.

Former Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., served from 1988 to 2009. Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., served from 1993 to 2011.

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