Byron McNutt
Byron McNutt

We have a problem in this country when 191 of the most lenient administrative law judges have approved more than 85 percent of Social Security disability claims they heard from 2005 to 2013 at a cost to taxpayers of $153 billion.

Most of those claims had been denied one or two times previously by SS workers in state offices. This act of rubber-stamping claims results in lifetime payments to many people and has led to a recent hearing by the U.S. House Oversight Committee chaired by Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

Keep in mind, lifetime benefits average $300,000. Average monthly payments are $1,150, according to the Social Security Administration. This column is based on coverage of the congressional hearing by AP reporter Stephen Ohlemacher.

The two most lenient administrative judges called to testify were Tennessee Judge Gerald Krafsur and Pennsylvania Judge Charles Bridges. They have held their positions a long time and were arrogant when called to the congressional woodshed.

Krafsur approved 99 percent of the cases he heard from 2005 to 2013. As a result, Social Security is on the hook for an estimated $1.8 billion. Bridges has approved 95 percent of his cases. Both judges hear 3 to 4 times the number of cases as other administrative law judges. There are a total of 1,400 judges.

A skeptical Chairman Issa asked Bridges “Are the people working below you always wrong (when denying disability claims)? Should every physical ailment qualify a person for a lifetime disability payout?”

“I would say they are not legally trained,” Bridges responded. “I don’t pay attention to those figures. All I do is concentrate on each case, one at a time.”

Is there any wonder the American people have lost confidence in government agencies? Many of these well-intentioned programs have become targets of dubious gamers and corrupt officials. Liberal judges find it hard to say no to spending taxpayer money.

As unemployed workers, and aging baby boomers, run out of government benefits, they have suddenly discovered disability benefits are pretty easy to get. Part of the blame can be put on to the effects of the Great Recession.

Some of the administrative judges say they are rubber-stamping the claims because the SS disability program has 937,000 cases pending. And, like the current situation with the Veterans Affairs Administration, there is pressure to reduce the backlog.

SS officials warn that the disability trust fund is projected to run out of money in 2016 if nothing is done. This could trigger an automatic 20 percent cut in benefits. You can bet that Congress won’t let that happen, especially during an election year.

How bad is this problem? Well, 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get benefits. That is a 45 percent increase in just the last decade. An additional 8.4 million get supplemental security income which is for low income people.

While there are 200 judges who cast suspicion on the program by playing Santa Claus with disability claims, the other 1,200 take a responsible approach. The approval rate for all claims dropped in 2013 to 56 percent from 72 percent in 2005.


A former colleague shared this story with me many years ago. It reminds us to be good employees and to value personal responsibility.

An elderly carpenter was ready to retire. He told his employer-contractor of his plans to leave the house-building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife enjoying his extended family. He would miss the paycheck but he needed to retire.

The contractor was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter said yes, but in time it was easy to see that his heart was not in his work.

He resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end a dedicated career.

When the carpenter finished his work the employer came to inspect the house. He handed the front door key to the carpenter. “This is your house,” he said, “My gift to you!”

The carpenter was shocked. What a shame! If he had only known he was building his own house, he would have done it all so differently.

So it is with us. We build our lives, a day at a time, often putting less than our best into the building. Then with a shock we realize we have to live in the house we have built (or the life we’ve built).

If we could do it over, we’d do it much differently. But we cannot go back.

You are the carpenter. Each day you hammer a nail, place a board or erect a wall. Your attitudes and the choices you make today build the house (life) you’ll live in tomorrow.

Build wisely with eternity in view.