Social Security checks wait to be mailed to beneficiaries. (AP/Bradley C. Bower)

On the first day of the new Congress, Republicans symbolically bound themselves to what is certain to be a controversial reform of the federal disability insurance program, which would probably occur near the height of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Social Security has two components, the disability insurance program and the much larger Old Age and Survivors Insurance program, for which almost all Americans become fully eligible when they reach retirement age. Congress has historically treated them as one system, moving money between one pot and the other if one is running short on funds and the other has plenty of money.

That's the situation now, as the disability pot is expected to be empty late next year. There is enough money in the larger pot to last until 2034, or to keep both programs solvent through 2033, according to the Social Security Administration.


This graph shows three budgetary projections for disability and Old-Age and Survivors Insurance. Actuaries believe the disability program will run out of money sometime in late 2016. Source: Social Security Administration.

Combined, however, the Social Security insurance programs can remain solvent for two decades. Source: Social Security Administration.

On Tuesday, however, the House adopted a parliamentary rule that adds a procedural obstacle to reallocating the money.

If Republicans do decide that a transfer is necessary, they can change the rules again easily enough. Still, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) said that a reallocation would be only a temporary solution that would avoid making real changes to "the fraud-plagued disability program."

"It will actually make the retirement program worse off, and it does nothing to fix the disability program," he said in a statement.

Fraud appears limited to relatively few cases in the disability program, although it is difficult to know precisely how many beneficiaries could be working. A report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that about 0.4 percent of disability beneficiaries were likely receiving improper payments, because they were working before or after they began receiving checks. Another report by Social Security's inspector general examined administrative law judges who were approving an unusually high proportion of disability applications and concluded that some of those approvals may have been mistaken. That group of beneficiaries also accounted for about 0.4 percent  of all those receiving disability payments.

And while it's true that more and more people are on disability, this is largely a result of the fact that the workforce is getting older and more likely to be hurt or sick, according to Kathy Ruffing of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-of-center think tank. About seven in ten disability recipients are at least 50 years old -- and that group is also expanding to include the women who entered the workforce at the beginning of their careers decades ago.

In any case, it's not clear whether fraud is more common in the disability program or in the retirement program. After all, it's common to read headlines about people accused of fraudulently collecting retirement benefits for a deceased parent, for example.

The effect of the rule appears to be to force Congress into a debate about Social Security next year instead of sometime before 2033. Without action from Congress, Social Security will be forced to cut disability payments to all recipients by about one fifth.

Johnson and his allies argued that a simple reallocation would irresponsibly and unfairly transfer money from future retirees to this year's disabled, but Ruffing countered that in fact it's the folks in the disability program who are owed a favor. She said that Congress created an imbalance created in 1983 by moving funds in the opposite direction -- out of the disability program and into the retirement program, which was approaching a shortfall.

"It's no surprise, and no crisis, unless somebody manufactures one," she said.