Biden administration will defend law that denies benefits in Puerto Rico

Decision reflects longstanding DOJ practice

The administration will defend the law affecting Puerto Rico even though it disagrees with it. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The administration will defend the law affecting Puerto Rico even though it disagrees with it. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 7, 2021 at 1:54pm

The Justice Department will defend a law that does not provide certain Social Security benefits to residents of Puerto Rico, even though President Joe Biden said Monday the provision “is inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values.”

The Justice Department is set to file a brief about its position in a case now at the Supreme Court, which challenges the constitutionality of a provision that provides Supplemental Security Income for aged, blind, and disabled individuals — but not in Puerto Rico and most other territories.

Lower courts in the case ruled that the provision violated the equal protection part of the Fifth Amendment’s protections for due process. The Trump administration in September asked the Supreme Court to overturn the lower courts and uphold the law. The justices in March agreed to hear the case in the next term, which starts in October.

The Trump administration, in its petition last year, told the justices that if the provision from 1972 was struck down as unconstitutional, it would cost over the next 10 years an estimated $23 billion for Puerto Rico and an additional $700 million for other territories.

And the Trump administration argued it “could affect numerous other Acts of Congress that treat Puerto Rico differently than the States and the District of Columbia for purposes of federal benefits programs.”

That includes parts of Medicare, Medicaid, a school lunch program, a pandemic relief fund, temporary assistance for needy families and child welfare services. The federal district court in Puerto Rico held, based on lower court rulings in this case, that Congress violated the Constitution by treating Puerto Rico differently from the states on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy, the Trump administration told the justices.

Biden said his administration also would argue that the provision is constitutional. The Justice Department, he said, has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences.

“This practice is critical to the Department’s mission of preserving the rule of law,” Biden said.

Biden instead called on Congress to amend the Social Security Act to extend the benefits to Puerto Rico, along with other moves he outlined in his budget request.

That includes the elimination of Medicaid funding caps for Puerto Rico and changing SNAP.

“These steps, along with the American Rescue Plan, which included an enhanced Child Tax Credit for families and a permanent federal match expansion to the Earned Income Tax Credit program, will provide families in Puerto Rico an equal chance to get ahead,” Biden said.

Congress provides federal assistance in Puerto Rico through a different program —Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled — that provides more local control but less federal funding, and covers fewer people with a lower level of benefits.

The challenges started with a man with severe health problems who moved from New York to Puerto Rico in 2013 and therefore lost eligibility for SSI benefits. The Social Security Administration paid him until they became aware of his change of residence in 2016, and then sued him in 2017 to recover the incorrect payments.