Mounting pressures to test GOP resolve on disability reforms

January 27, 1995|By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writers

As the new Republican majority in Congress begins its effort to slash Social Security's troubled $65 billion disability plan, there already are signs that political pressure is being felt that could jeopardize serious reform.

Two decades of rule changes ordered by Congress have turned a pair of modest programs for disabled workers and poor people into America's most generous welfare plan -- a cash handout that is expected to cost $96 billion by the year 2000. The most alarming growth has been among children, immigrants and drug addicts.

But Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that opens hearings today, faces the kind of political quandary that could turn the proceedings into a test of his party's resolve to reform welfare within the first 100 days of taking power.

In an interview this week, the South Florida Republican said that while he supports deep cuts in aid to disabled drug addicts, alcoholics and children, he will oppose any wholesale cutbacks to one of the most controversial groups in the program: refugees.

"These people have fled tyranny and are deserving of having those benefits," he said. "Yes, there has been a fraud problem connected with them, but that's our fault for allowing the fraud to take place. That's shame on us -- not shame on them."

Refugees and immigrants are costing U.S. taxpayers $4 billion a year because of one sentence that went largely unnoticed by Congress when it passed the 1972 law creating the disability program, The Sun reported in a series of articles this week.

In the midst of one of the largest immigrant booms in U.S. history, it spawned an underground of "middle men" who steer the new arrivals onto the rolls for profit.

Mr. Shaw was not in Congress then, but political survival in his home state rests heavily on not upsetting South Florida's powerful immigrant lobby. And that is not the only group he must contend with.

Attention mounts

"I am finding advocacy groups I didn't even know existed," he said. "And they are militant and tough to deal with. But I don't think we in Congress should be representing special interests. We were sent here to represent the taxpayers."

Members of the subcommittee are finding themselves inundated with calls, letters and faxes from the elderly, handicapped and disabled. The attention has turned what was scheduled to be a one-day hearing with hand-picked witnesses calling for cuts into three days of proceedings.

Meanwhile, the subcommittee staff was scrambling this week to come up with more witnesses to provide a counterbalance.

"We are looking for a witness who will be willing to say that SSI furthered his addiction and made it possible for him to be an addict," Ways and Means staffer Matt Weidinger said. "Furthermore, we want him to say it would be a good idea for the cash benefits to be cut off to addicts."

Filling a hearing with friendly witnesses is an old Washington practice. But it is this kind of political maneuvering that has brought the disability aid program to its current crisis, said Susan Galbraith of the Legal Action Center in Washington.

"Democrats pulled that stunt for years -- and the Republicans hated it," she said. "It gives them a nice big smoke screen and gets them a lot of television coverage so they can ram something through that they don't want to spend a lot of time on. If the Republicans are serious about fixing this problem, they'll knock that off right now."

The first of the two programs, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), provides checks of up to $458 per month to poor people who are too old, disabled, ill or addicted to support themselves. Funded with taxes, its costs have doubled in five years and are expected to increase by another 50 percent by the turn of the century.

Similar growth is expected in the second program, known as Disability Insurance (DI). It lets workers draw money early from the Social Security retirement trust fund if they become too disabled to work -- and is undermining the cornerstone of retirement planning for most Americans.

Both programs are covered by the same generous rules that have allowed many people to draw benefits for marginal disabilities.

But while SSI has been the target of repeated congressional investigations and quick fixes since it was created in 1972, neither party in Congress has been willing to take on DI's problems for fear of backlash by workers claiming that they have "earned" their benefits.

As recently as last summer, Congress launched an election-year crackdown on addicts in the SSI program that was supposed to drive them off the rolls after three years. But it left a loophole that lets DI addicts receive benefits for at least three years after they are accepted into a treatment program -- at a time when there is a nationwide shortage of treatment.

Mr. Shaw and other members of the committee vow to go after the SSI addicts again by stopping benefits immediately to some 80,000 who are on the rolls solely because they are addicted.

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