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That Was the Week That Wasn’t

Federal budgeting SNAFU delays entitlement processing, lines bureaucrats pockets

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As congressfolk thrashed around to avoid yet another federal government shutdown, a little-noticed branch of our allegedly out-of-control entitlements system (it spent $124 billion last year) came to a screeching halt—in order that its managers might enjoy, in the words of a Wall Street Journal story, “promotions or thousands of dollars in bonuses.”

The snafu came courtesy of a quirk in federal budgeting. Turns out the fiscal year can be only 52 weeks, no more and no less. Yet the calendar year averages out to 365.25 days, give or take a few minutes, which is a day and six hours more than 52 weeks. The result: Every half-decade or so there is a no-man’s week—last week—which is not officially part of any fiscal year.

And that wouldn’t matter much but for a system of incentives promulgated by Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael J. Astrue, who has been trying to clear a backlog of applications for disability benefits (“Wait for Social Security Benefits Is Getting Longer,” Mobtown Beat, June 22).

In order to stay ahead of the burgeoning caseload, Astrue has reportedly set annual benchmarks for his regional administrators—measured according to each fiscal year.

Because of this, the regional administrators got word to their underlings, and to the 1,500 administrative law judges, that no cases should be adjudicated last week, as such work would not count toward anyone’s annual quota. According to the Journal’s reporting, on Monday, Sept. 26, a grand total of 230 disability decisions were finalized. On a typical day the judges handle about 3,000 cases.

That this would needlessly delay the provision of benefits to impoverished and disabled people who typically must wait more than a year to begin to collect them apparently did not trouble the administrators.

Push-back within the bureaucracy came swiftly, with union bosses complaining and the chief judge sending out a memo on Sept. 28 reminding fellow judges to ignore the bleatings of the sub-bosses. The Journal could not be sure on Sept. 30 if the pace of adjudication had returned to normal, but Paul Nolan, a Baltimore lawyer specializing in Social Security disability claims, says he didn’t notice any slowdown. “My experience is the exact opposite,” he said Sept. 30. “I had several cases that I was waiting for decisions on, and I didn’t think they’d be done until next month but all three came in today.

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