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VIDEO: Senator Lankford Slams Budget Deal, Pleads with Congress to Reform SSDI

CLICK HERE to view the video of the speech

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today spoke on the Senate floor about his opposition to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, and his plea to Congress to pursue real reforms to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. Lankford objected to the Budget deal because it perpetuates the status quo on government spending, it doesn’t move us toward a balanced budget, it doesn’t reduce the deficit, and it uses budget gimmicks to appear to be deficit neutral.

Earlier in the day, Lankford offered an amendment to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 that reforms the SSDI program. Specifically, the amendment (#2755) would improve the adjudication process for appeals and reconsiderations; prevent individuals from receiving SSDI who are not disabled; and ensure stronger program integrity, processing and oversight.

Below is the full transcript from the speech:

“People in my home state are trying to figure out what they missed in this budget deal. It was announced by the White House today that this is a great job-creating achievement, but all I see is more spending and no change to the status quo. Everyone throws around numbers, but here’s the one number the people in my state want to hear: How much does it save the American taxpayer? Put another way, does it help us balance our budget or address the debt problems? We need two things to be able to balance our federal budget: Spending restraint and a growing economy. Right now we have neither. We have $18.5 trillion in debt, over $430 billion in deficit this year. To start paying down our debt, we have to first balance our budget. 

The Presiding Officer knows very well that we passed a budget earlier this year that took the next ten years to be able to balance our budget. Let’s just play pretend for a moment with this body. Let’s just say we put that budget into play and worked down to a balanced budget ten years from now. Just take a guess in this body. Let’s say the year after that we had a $50 billion surplus. It took us ten years to get back to balance. Year 11 we had a $50 billion surplus. How many years would we have to maintain a $50 billion balance until we paid off our debt? The correct answer would be 360 years in a row we would have to have a $50 billion surplus to pay off our debt. Mr. President, we need to start doing budgets that actually deal seriously with what we’re dealing with  our debt and deficit. Today,  our GDP growth was announced again, a whopping 1.5 percent growth in the American economy. With new regulations on every business, the assault on American energy new loan restrictions on banks, Obamacare cost increases, including in my state of Oklahoma premium increases hitting 35 percent for next year on individuals. People know inherently that if you keep over-pending, it limits our economic growth in America. We have fewer jobs because of it. It is harder to start a business because of it. The President keeps saying if we spend a little more, we’ll have more jobs. The people don’t believe it anymore because they’ve seen that it’s not true. 

After six years, if we’ll just spend a little, spend a little more we will catch up. We still have a 1.5 percent growth rate in the American economy. That’s pathetic. While we have a great number of terrific people in the federal workforce, people inherently know if you just keep adding jobs in the federal workforce, it hurts our economy because it continues to take money out of the private hands and put into government control. What people want is not unreasonable. They just want a plan. People want to know that if we spend money, we use it efficiently and there’s plan to be able to get us out of debt. What we heard from the negotiations was any increase in spending would be offset with pay-fors that were real. The spending negotiations that were done were supposed to develop that plan. 

What we have is a final document that is not a plan to get us out of debt. In fact, it increases our debt again. What we have is not a plan to be able to handle a long-term consequence of deficit. It obfuscates that again. What we need is a plan to deal with entitlements and what we have is a scratch on the surface. But what I heard over and over again is at least the pay-fors are real, that any increased spending that was done, at least that were offsets that were done. Let me give you a couple of examples of these real pay-fors as you read the bill. 

One of them is called pension payment acceleration. This is listed as one of the real pay-fors in the document. Pension payment acceleration in section 502 changed the due date for pension premiums from October 15, 2025, to September 15, 2025, in order to get another $2.3 billion into the ten-year budget window. This is all laid out to say in the next ten years, we’ll pay this off. So what they did is they took a payment that was due ten years two weeks from now and moved it forward a month. So literally, yes, it adds $2.3 billion into the ten-year window, but if we add a ten year plus two-week time period, it would be exactly the same. It’s actually zero savings. It’s not real. They moved a payment a month and said that that’s a pay-for. It is not a pay-for. That’s the pension payment acceleration. 

How about this one: We have this one called the federal government — called the Victims Crime Fund. The Victims Crime Fund is money seized from criminals and designated not for general use but to compensate the victims of crime. Hence the name, Victims’ Crime Fund. Apparently this budget agreement qualifies as a victim of crime because $1.5 billion is taken from the Victims Crime Fun and dedicated not to victims of crime but to spending in other areas. We take $1.5 billion out of the  Victims Crime Fund and spend it on the EPA, the IRS and silent Shakespeare festivals. So much for helping crime victims. We have 12 appropriations bills that were done in the Senate. First time in a very long time the Appropriations Committee has done all 12 appropriations bills through committee. In this agreement, all 12 of those appropriations bills will have to be redone. Here’s how they’ll be redone: The defense bill will be cut. The other 11 will all go up in spending. The top of that is debt ceiling without reforms.

The final straw for me in this deal… was social security disability. The presiding officer knows full well that I’ve worked for three years on social security disability reform knowing that the day was coming that we would have to fix social security. The CBO has warned us for four years that social security disability would reach insolvency in 2016, so my office has spent the last three years preparing, how could we actually reform this program to make sure that we stabilize the social security disability program? I’ve interviewed individuals within the disability program, attorneys that work with it, federal judges, administrative law judges, representatives, social security staff in all the cubicles across the social security administration office, advocacy groups, parents of the disabled. We did bipartisan hearings to look for common-ground solutions and work with the inspector general and the GAO to hear other practical solutions that they had discovered. 

We have a long list of real solutions to solve social security disability for the disabled and for the taxpayer. We have submitted those solutions as an amendment to this bill, because there are real answers to be able to solve social security disability if you do the work, which we have actually done the work to prepare for this. But instead, this budget bill renews a few demonstration programs, changes a few names, transfers some funds from retirement social security over to disability social security. Calls it reform. If you look at how the tables work out, of the 100 percent that needs to be done to bring solvency, they do 1.5 percent of what needs to be done. To bring the program to solvency. The estimate is 1.5 percent of the 100 percent that needs to be done. And it’s called Real Significant Disability Reform. I wish it was because it’s desperately needed. Everyone knows this Congress only seems to do anything when they have to. A deadline is coming to deal with Social Security Disability. This is the time we have to do the reforms. This opportunity will not come around again for seven years. Because this extends out this program for seven years, with almost no reforms at all. 

We’re missing our window. These are the most vulnerable individuals in our society that are on disability. These are individuals that literally cannot work in the economy in any way, and they need our help and they need real reform in this program, and we have punted it. 1.5 percent of the reform that is needed to actually stabilize the program. What is real reform look like? It helps those stuck in the painful process of disability applications and gets them the help they need at the time they need it. Real reform looks like it helps those who game the system to get out of the system. It gives clarity, accountability and oversight to the system itself. That’s what real reform would look like. 

Let me give you a couple of examples. The grid — the way — it’s called the vocational grid, what is used to determine whether someone can work in the economy. It has not been updated since 1978. It needs to be updated not just now , it needs to be updated every ten years to have a regular cycle of updating it, not every 40 years. But that’s not required in this bill. We need to have good record keeping, evidence for disability. That’s not required in this bill. We’d have to have this standard to be able to rotate off disability, to bring some clarity to it. Right now it’s medical improvement, but the problem is there are no good records often for those individuals on disability so there is no way to rotate off of it, you’re permanently trapped in it because the records were so bad at the start. There’s no change in that. 

What does that look like in real life? Let me give you a couple real-life examples. In Puerto Rico the U.S. Attorney’s office accepted a case about four years ago. The Inspector General initiated a federal grand jury investigation working close list with the FBI and the Puerto Rico police department.  In August of 2013,74 individuals including four medical professionals and a non-attorney claimant representative were indicted and arrested for their involvement in a large-scale disability fraud scheme. In January 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Puerto Rico announced the indictments of an additional 40 individuals including a psychiatrist for their alleged involvement in this conspiracy and they undertook an early morning arrest operation for those individuals. All these individuals were apprehended and at the end of it they estimate the cost to the taxpayer is $100 million of fraud in that one case alone. 

In Huntington, West Virginia, in May of this year, Social Security Administration mailed letters to approximately 1,500 individuals informing them of their need to re-determine their eligibility for social security disability. Many of those individuals have been on disability for years now because the Social Security Administration, the Inspector General’s Office noted that many of these individuals were put on a case that did not match facts with what actually happened in their life. They had been led to believe by a representative, an attorney in this case, and by some fraudulent work behind the scenes of some physicians and inside work of individuals within social security to be able to fast-track them through the process. And what happened? Hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud. These things still continue. Nothing changes on this. I wish that this bill would correct some of these issues today, but it doesn’t correct these issues. 

Those individuals were told by someone that they fit into the disabled category only to find out later they had also been defrauded in this system. There is nothing in this bill mandating the Social Security Administration update its medical and vocations listings.  There’s nothing in this bill to prevent people who receive unemployment insurance who, by definition must be employable, from also receiving disability insurance who, by definition cannot also work. There’s nothing in this bill to streamline the adjudication process or to eliminate second level of appeal which is called “reconsideration.”  Many individuals that are within the process that just — that are legitimately disabled, that just want to have their case heard get stuck in this long process. There are actually more appeals in the Social Security Administration, in the Social Security Disability Program than there is on death row, which puts people endlessly in this cycle of endless appeals, it feels like, year after year, and it continues to rack up the cost both to the taxpayer and the effect on those that are on disability. 

There is nothing in this bill to ensure that a claimant’s medical record is well developed so when they come up for a continuing disability review they can make an informed judgment to actually evaluate whether they’re medically improved or not. There is nothing in this bill to conduct oversight of the administrative law judges or claimants or representatives. The bill increases the numbers of administrative law judges but not the oversight. I’m not sure that many in this body are aware that some of the administrative law judges in this country have an overturn rate of 95 percent or higher and we’re adding more, but not increasing the oversight. There’s no opportunity given for greater accountability or even to improve the judicial code of conduct here, a basic element of reform that should be in this. As for the claimant representatives, according to the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General, in 2013 the top ten claimant representatives made $23 million. 

Remember that the payment for the claimant representative comes directly out of the money that should go to the disabled individual, not from another fund. It’s from the individual that should have received that money as disability. So the more the reps make, the less the tax money gets to the disabled. There’s no change in this model. It continues to provide continuing funding for claimant representatives and attorneys, and continues to leave those in disability exposed. By the way, today in the Social Security Administration offices all around the country they’re processing the money from the disabled and sending a check to the representatives because though the reps are hired by the disabled individual, they’re paid and processed by the federal workforce from the disabled person’s money. We can do better than this. We should do better than this. 

Mr. President, this was not a deal that the American people are looking for. This is not a budget agreement that the people of Oklahoma say- that fixes our debt and deficit issues and that stabilizes disability. This is the deal that’s done apparently, but not a deal that’s done well. Based on where we are in debt and deficit, we need to do better, and I pray we do in the days ahead. We have much to get fixed. It’s time to actually fix some things, not just to stay operational.”