LIKE THE president he admires so much, Vice President Bush seems to find it hard to face up to the consequences of administration policies. Take the case of the Social Security disability program. Under the administration, hundreds of thousands of people lost their benefits before the courts, and ultimately Congress intervened. But last Monday Mr. Bush told a crowd of elderly people that the disability benefits cut "was imposed by the Congress and has been corrected by this administration."
The germ of truth in this assertion is that, in 1980, Congress did order a review of the disability rolls to weed out people whose conditions had improved sufficiently to enable them to find jobs. The review wasn't to begin until January 1982, to give the Social Security Administration plenty of time to prepare for this delicate task. Only modest budget savings were anticipated.
When the Reagan administration came into office, it started the review almost immediately, toughened review standards and set targets for savings so high as to anticipate throwing one out of five beneficiaries off the rolls. In the chaos that followed, almost half a million people -- some with multiple disabling conditions -- lost benefits.
While this fiasco was still in its early stages, the administration proposed still larger disability cuts as part of its ill-fated Social Security package of May 1981. These proposals ultimately would have reduced disability benefits by about 30 percent and essentially prevented anyone with a gradually deteriorating condition from ever receiving benefits no matter how disabled he ultimately became.
No doubt some people who lost benefits deserved it. But many, many more suffered great hardship. Some of the saddest cases will probably never come to liht, simply because the people involved were too disoriented or feeble to seek legal help. But thanks to help from local legal services programs -- which the administration also wished to abolish -- more than 200,000 people ultimately managed to get their benefits reinstated. Others are still tied up in the appeals process.
In 1982, as the horror stories piled up in the press and appeals cases flooded the federal courts, Congress ordered the administration to stop cutting off benefits before people were able to complete appeals. Governors in most states ordered disability case workers (states administer the disability test) to ignore administration review rules. Judges throughout the country began reversing benefits cutoffs by the thousands. Many judges warned the administration to stop ignoring court decisions overruling benefit terminations.
Hoping to head off corrective legislation, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler corrected some procedures and imposed a temporary moratorium on reviews. But Congress, despite administration objections, wisely persisted in writing needed reforms into a law which the president, no doubt impressed by the measure's unanimous support in Congress, signed this month. It would not be surprising if the administration wished to erase the memory of its responsibility for this shameful affair. But it should at least have the grace not to claim credit for correcting it.