The Long Arm of Social Security

We are all familiar with the long arm of the law; but the long arm of the Social Security law has taken us by surprise.

For this arm reaches into personal savings accounts, and it takes without warning. It reaches back decades into the past, and across generations. It gives and then takes away what it gave, stops for a while, then takes away again.

The story is that back in April of this year, the Social Security Administration got its hand caught while collecting debts from the children of people who were allegedly overpaid benefits decades ago.

After a newspaper exposé revealed that the Treasury Department had confiscated $75 million in tax refunds due to about 400,000 Americans whose ancestors owed money to Social Security, the agency’s acting commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, said the collections would cease immediately, pending a review of the practice.

Now, in December, we learn that SSA is at it again. One might suppose that this does not constitute breaking a promise, since it only promised to hold off for a time to think about it. But an inquiry directed to SSA showed that such an interpretation of its behavior would be giving them the undeserved benefit of the doubt.

When asked to explain the resumption of collection efforts (and they would take questions only in writing), spokesman Mark Hinkle said: “We are finalizing our review of the Treasury offset program, but cannot discuss specifics due to the pending litigation.” (The offset program is the feds’ charming euphemism for the abovementioned debt collection.)

Thus, for reasons unexplained, the Social Security Administration could not wait to conclude its own internal review of the practice before starting it up again. Not only that, but some people whose confiscated refunds had been reimbursed have since received new demands from Social Security, asserting that the debts remain and seeking repayment.

Aside from the evident bad faith, the SSA’s modus operandi is astonishing. Victims of the offset program complain of confiscation of funds from their accounts without prior notice, and in a style more befitting a smarmy collection agency than a respectable social welfare agency run with taxpayer dollars.

Take, for example, Mary Grice, 58, of Takoma Park, Maryland. After the April exposé, the government returned her tax refunds to her. But in August, she received a new bill from Social Security, seeking the same $2,997 that the agency had refunded to her four months earlier.

“DID YOU FORGET?” the letter said, demanding that Grice “send us the full payment right away.” At least there was no allusion to what unpleasant fate might befall her or her loved ones if she did not comply.

Grice and four other plaintiffs are fighting the government in federal court. They argue that the whole scheme is illegal, confiscating tax refunds from tens of thousands of people “to satisfy dubious claims of debts based on alleged overpayments made decades ago.” It also notes that in many cases the government has not been able to furnish any documentation showing overpayment.

As Robert Vogel, the attorney for the plaintiffs, acidly observed, “They’re asking the court to be the first court in the United States to force a child to pay a debt incurred by the parents. It’s really quite disgusting.”

But the Social Security Administration is unrepentant. On the contrary, it is fighting back. The government’s brief argues that “the issue is whether [the law] bars Social Security from recovering overpayments from individuals who received benefits through another individual on their behalf when they were children. The answer to that question is ‘no.’”

What an unexpected pleasure not to have to wrestle with some impenetrable legalese to get the answer. The government’s lawyers may be hoping that everyone will be so surprised by such straight talk that they will just take ‘no’ for an answer.

But the court should not take their rhetorical plainsong for an answer. Behind the monosyllable huddles an unlovely fact. The collection effort that disregards generations was indeed authorized by a legislative act in 2008, snuck into a farm bill by an anonymous lawmaker. It allows Social Security and other federal agencies to use a Treasury program to seize federal payments to recoup debts that are more than 10 years old. Previously, there was a 10-year limit on using the program.

However, as Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said in a letter to Colvin: “While this policy of seizing tax refunds to repay decades-old Social Security overpayments might be allowed under the law, it is entirely unjust.”

Unjust. It took them two syllables, but they still got the point across.

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