As Disability Appeals Pile Up, a Call for More Judges

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The government's troubled hiring program for administrative law judges has been put on notice that it needs speedy improvement.

Members of the House Social Security subcommittee yesterday expressed frustration that more than 730,000 disability appeals are pending at the Social Security Administration and that problems in hiring new administrative law judges have contributed to the backlog.

Administrative law judges issue dozens of rulings every year on whether Americans are entitled to Social Security disability benefits and other federal services. Some of the judges, once known as hearing examiners, rule in federal regulatory cases and determine whether laws were violated. Of the 1,400 ALJs in the government, 1,108 work for Social Security.

Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue and Linda M . Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, told the House subcommittee yesterday that efforts are underway to increase the number of judges and to create new procedures for hiring the judges.

The agency sets the qualifications for the job, rates the applicants and places those who qualify on a hiring roster. Springer said a new roster would be ready by late October.

Despite the importance of administrative law judges, the hiring program has struggled in recent years. Eight years ago, litigation over how the agency had ranked applicants for ALJ positions shut down the program. The case was resolved in favor of the agency four years ago, but the rule establishing a new hiring program took effect only last month.

"I'm frankly concerned that the process has taken this long," said Rep. Michael R. McNulty (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Social Security subcommittee. Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), the ranking member, called it "criminal that you are waiting to the end of the year" to establish a new roster of qualified applicants.

Springer said the agency has been sensitive to the needs of Social Security, stressing that her agency had gone to court to win an exception so that Social Security could hire during the litigation. Since 1997, she said, Social Security had hired 562 off the agency's list.

But Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) pointed out that most of the people on the agency's roster filed applications in the 1990s, raising concern that this pool might not have included the best people for Social Security.

Pomeroy also listed a series of statements made by Social Security from 2003 to 2006 that indicated obstacles to hiring administrative law judges would be overcome soon. But the number of judges on the hiring roster continued to drop while the number of disability claims grew, he said.

Americans in need of Social Security assistance, Pomeroy said, "are being hurt every day by the bureaucratic bungling of OPM."

Springer said she pushed the agency's staff to shorten the timetable for establishing a new ALJ hiring roster when she learned about the subcommittee's concerns. She said the staff had probably thought the old list was meeting the needs of Social Security and that the agency had time to undertake "a more deliberative process" of issuing regulations.

Astrue said Social Security must "use our ALJs in a smarter, more efficient way," adding that it may be time for the agency to place some judges in a central office and use them to address the worst backlogs through video teleconferencing. Keeping all the administrative law judges in the agency's 141 hearing offices probably is not the most efficient way through the backlog, he said.

He said the agency has 1,108 ALJs and that he plans to increase their number to 1,250. Astrue said he has been meeting with members of the Appropriations committees to try to win a larger budget for Social Security next year.

Coast Guard Farewell

Susan Baicar, staff assistant to seven Coast Guard commandants, retired May 1 after 47 years with the U.S. Coast Guard.

She joined the Coast Guard out of high school, starting as a clerk-stenographer. It's a decision she never regretted, Baicar said. Working as a confidential assistant to the commandants has been "pretty much high pressure. Very interesting. You are never bored," she said.

During her career, the Coast Guard moved from the Treasury Department to the Transportation Department, then to the Department of Homeland Security. In her job, Baicar said, "I just like to think that I contributed to the continuity of the [commandant's] office."

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