House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., was one of the lawmakes who signed a letter to SSA.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., was one of the lawmakes who signed a letter to SSA. Jose Luis Magana/AP

Democratic Lawmakers Warn Proposed Social Security Rule Could Be Illegal

Leaders of several congressional committees call on the Social Security Administration to abandon a proposed rule that would allow appeals officers to hear lower-level disability cases.

Several top Democratic lawmakers last week called on the Social Security Administration to abandon a controversial proposal to take some disability cases out of the hands of administrative law judges, suggesting the plan could violate federal law.

Last December, the agency proposed regulations that would allow appeals judges to hear standard disability cases, arguing that the plan would improve the speed at which the Social Security Administration reviews whether applicants are eligible for benefits. The union that represents administrative law judges fiercely opposes the change, noting that the process is currently historically fast, and arguing it is an effort to undermine their judicial independence.

In a letter to Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden and others urged the agency to withdraw the proposed regulations.

The lawmakers said that if implemented, the new rule would violate the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires adjudicatory hearings to be presided over by an administrative law judge, as well as lawmakers’ intent when Congress passed the law establishing Social Security disability benefits.

“While SSA claims that its regulations that have existed since 1940 permit the agency to adopt its proposed rule, SSA’s proposal is inconsistent with longstanding SSA practice,” they wrote. “Since 1940, SSA has not used the referenced sections of the agency’s rules in any substantial way. Instead, SSA has generally acted in accord with the APA and long recognized (through its well-established policies and procedures) that its hearings comport with the APA and must be presided over by an ALJ.”

If implemented, the measure would reduce the due process protections afforded to Americans who apply for disability benefits, and could undermine confidence in the impartiality of employees who preside over cases, the Democrats wrote.

“The independence granted to ALJs is designed to maintain public confidence in the essential fairness of the process through which Social Security benefits are allocated by ensuring impartial decision-making,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unlike ALJs, which are independent, [administrative appeals judges] are regular employees of SSA. The change from ALJs to AAJs takes away a level of independence from the decision-making process.”

The lawmakers also argued that, contrary to the agency’s assertions, administrative law judges and appeals officers do not have similar skills and experience. As part of their submission to the Social Security Administration, the lawmakers provided job postings for both sets of positions to highlight these differences.

“ALJs conduct de novo, face-to-face hearings to gather evidence, examine witnesses, establish facts, and apply law and policy,” they wrote. “In contrast, AAJs do not currently conduct hearings; instead, they focus primarily on policy compliance and quality review. These are fundamentally different roles, and consequently the two positions require and develop very different expertise and skills. AAJs are not interchangeable with ALJs.”

The Democrats noted that unlike administrative law judges, appeals officers are not required to have a “proven ability to ensure a fair hearing.”

“Unlike ALJs, AAJs are not required to have skills or expertise that are essential to due process, including fact finding to determine in an impartial way whether or not an individual meets statutory eligibility standards such as the Social Security Act’s definition of disability,” they wrote.

The agency is expected to make a final decision on the proposed rule some time in the coming months.