LAST SPRING both houses of Congress passed bills that would prevent the administration from resuming -- after a self-imposed moratorium -- its reckless purge of the Social Security disability rolls. But conferees still haven't agreed on a final meas Meanwhile, federal courts continue to be swamped with appeals of prior benefit terminations that, in the absence of congressional clarification, are being decided according to widely differing standards.
The disputed issues are not trivial. But neither are they truly central to the question of how to run a disability program that is both reasonably humane and economically feasible. Neither house would change the strict rule denying benefits to disabled people as long as there is one job somewhere in the country -- whether vacant or not -- that they could perform. Congress doesn't want to relax that rule for fear of encouraging many more people with disabilities to apply for benefits. But it would like to avoid pulling the rug out from under many people who were allowed on the disability rolls years ago when administrators were more lenient. The people, if dropped now, would certainly look like worthy cases to the untrained eye.
Both houses agree that people whose conditions have not improved should not lose benefits unless the original finding of eligibility was faulty or unless medical advances have improved their chances of finding a job. But the Senate wants clients to produce records and other evidence to prove that their conditions haven't improved. The House thinks it would minimize legal costs and be fairer if the agency, which normally keeps old client records, had to show that the client had improved.
The House also wants to extend the new protections to people who did not appeal to the administrative agency when their benefits were stopped but are now covered by class-action suits in federal court. And it wants to require Social Security either to ask the Supreme Court to overturn federal appeals court rulings it doesn't like or to apply the rules to all cases within the covered circuit -- something the agency currently refuses to do.
These issues involve considerations of fairness, cost and legal precedent. But Congress routinely works out far trickier compromises. The fact that the issues are still unresolved arouses suspicions. Is the House more interested in pre-election posturing on an issue that has, rightly, embarrassed the administration? Is the Senate paying too much attention to administration officials who fear that a fair resolution of the disability review issue would interfere unduly with their post-election budget- cutting plans?