Judges' proposal underscores turf battle at Social Security

A union for administrative law judges has released a sweeping proposal to reduce the number of disability cases choking the Social Security appeals process. Observers say the plan may worsen a longstanding turf battle within the Social Security Administration. The Association of Administrative Law Judges wants to transfer final authority over disability appeals under the Social Security Act to a new agency staffed by administrative law judges. The move is necessary to reduce the mounting backlog of disability appeals, the association says. The total case backlog--the vast majority of which involve disability appeals--shot up by 15 percent last year, to 367,135. Because there are close to 1,000 administrative judges, the judges are best equipped to handle the escalating number of appeals, according to the association. "The process we are proposing is realistic in terms of handling the large caseload, which is not the case for the other proposals in this area, all of which rely on the creation of small bodies such as a board or commission," said Robin Arzt, regional vice president of the association. Currently, the Social Security Administration Appeals Council serves as the final step in the appeals process for claimants who are denied benefits. As such, the council serves as a check on decisions made by administrative judges. Under their proposal, the judges would eliminate the Council and hand its duties over to an appeals board made up of administrative judges, effectively creating an independent corps of judges to hear Social Security appeals. Administrative law judges have long alleged that SSA interferes with their judicial independence and have sought to become independent from the agency. The association's plan would require amendments to the 1935 Social Security Act. Congress has previously been wary of proposals to create an independent corps of administrative judges. In 1996, a bill to create an independent corps of all federal administrative judges died in committee. "In the past, we have been opposed to making the [administrative judges] independent," said a senior staff member of the House Ways and Means Committee. In the 1996 debate, Jim Bunning, R-Ky., then chairman of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, said that administrative judges within the agency had sufficient independence and did not need to be part of a new governmentwide corps. Arzt contends the association's proposal should have "better prospects" on Capitol Hill than the 1996 bill because it provides a specific plan to address the agency's problem with disability cases. But even she admitted that agency officials are unlikely to support the plan. "In reality, most agencies don't like to lose a piece of themselves," Arzt said. While the agency has yet to review the association's disability backlog proposal, the top official in the office that oversees the Appeals Council hinted that attempts to scrap the council face an uphill fight within the agency. "I can only emphasize that the role of the Appeals Council is extremely important, and I would not entertain a piecemeal change or a change that doesn't take into consideration the full functions and role of the council," said Rita Geier, associate commissioner for the Office of Hearings and Appeals at SSA. Some observers see the association's proposal as a further escalation of conflict between the administrative law judges and the Social Security Administration. "What [the judges] are looking for is a totally independent operation where they can run themselves … it is a directly adverse recommendation from [a proposal that] unites the agency into one disability team," said the staffer with the Ways and Means Committee. In a January report, the Social Security Advisory Board noted that the relationship between judges and the agency "has deteriorated to the point where the judges recently voted to form a union, with the view that this was necessary to have their views taken into account." The association has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the agency for failing to participate in collective bargaining over the design of a major reorganization of the hearing process, the Hearing Process Improvement plan. A hearing before the Federal Labor Relations Board began March 1. "One of the greatest challenges of the new [Social Security Administration] commissioner is going to be breaking down these barriers within the organization," said the staffer with the Ways and Means Committee. The association's proposal, "Report and Recommendations for the Transfer of the Authority to Make Final Administrative Adjudications of Social Security Act Claims from the Social Security Administration to a New Independent Regulatory Agency," will soon be available in the public section of the union's Web site.
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