Happy Tax Day, America! According to the Washington Post, the Social Security Administration will stop looting the tax refunds of innocent people to pay off their relatives’ “debts.” Enjoy this wonderful gift from your benevolent mega-government!
The action comes after The Washington Post reported that the government was seizing state and federal tax refunds that were on their way to about 400,000 Americans who had relatives who owed money to the Social Security agency. In many cases, the people whose refunds were intercepted had never heard of any debt, and the debts dated as far back as the middle of the past century.
“I have directed an immediate halt to further referrals under the Treasury Offset Program to recover debts owed to the agency that are 10 years old and older pending a thorough review of our responsibility and discretion under the current law,” the acting Social Security commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, said in a statement.
Colvin said anyone who has received Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits and “believes they have been incorrectly assessed with an overpayment” should contact the agency and “seek options to resolve the overpayment.”
Not only were the victims never informed about the “debt” Social Security was collecting, but in the marquee case of federal employee Mary Grice of Maryland, the debt of almost $3000 plucked from her tax return was incurred 37 years ago by her mother, who collected survivors’ benefits following the death of her father 44 years ago. Except maybe it was her father’s first wife, not her mother, who received the overpayment of benefits under the Carter Administration. No one was willing to tell Ms. Grice whose debts she was involuntarily paying.
According to the Post, after they first reported on the ancient debt collection program, “many hundreds of taxpayers whose refunds had been intercepted came forward and complained to members of Congress that they had been given no notice of the debts and that the government had not explained why they were being held responsible for debts that their deceased parents may have incurred.”
This led the Social Security Administration to rethink an idea that nobody ever should have thunk in the first place. Seriously, how sick and twisted does a bureaucrat have to be, for this to even briefly seem like a good idea? Presumably some team of overpaid government lawyers concluded it was legal, but it seems like a gross violation of many important principles, including due process. (I see from the earlier Washington Post story that Grice filed suit against the Social Security Administration on precisely those grounds.)
Getting your pocket picked without warning, because of a decades-old overpayment you had nothing to do with? Someone in the bowels of SSA tried to defend this by arguing that children may have benefited somehow from the excess benefits collected by their parents, but that’s a heck of a long stretch… and arguably untrue in the case of Ms. Grice, whose mother might not have been the recipient of the money. The government told Grice that they didn’t even try to figure out where the money went – they just started taking out of her hide because she’s the oldest of four siblings, and once they’d beaten every nickel out of her, they would move along to the next-oldest. Except that turned out to be untrue, because she’s actually the middle child – it looks like they went after her because she had a nice plump tax return they could pilfer. The Social Security Administration also evidently lied about trying to contact her before it took the money – they claimed they sent her letters, but she never received any, and she’s been living at the same address since 1984.
For that matter, I don’t see any allegations that Grice’s mother, or any of the other ancient-debt targets, deliberately bilked the government out of these overpayments. It could have been an honest mistake, or a clerical error on the Social Security Administration’s part. The burden of evidence and explanation in these cases was placed entirely on the targets. The SSA merely shrugged and said it didn’t have the decades-old paperwork… and if you didn’t have any of that old paper in your closet, well, tough cookies.
Where does a boneheaded idea like this come from, anyway? Why, from a farm bill, of course:
The effort to collect on old debts began with a single line in the 2008 farm bill that lifted the statute of limitations on debts to the government that are more than 10 years old. The Treasury Department then set up rules that allowed the government to settle such debts by intercepting taxpayers’ refunds. The department has collected about $2 billion in intercepted tax refunds this year, $75 million of that on debts delinquent for more than 10 years.
Not only was this program provoking public outrage, but the Social Security enforcers would soon find themselves forced to stand in line behind the ObamaCare enforcers, who also have designs on our tax returns. Better to nip this ancient-debt program in the bud before we have any nasty bureaucratic turf wars.
The relationship between American citizens and their government is changing, very much for the worse. The idea of fining people without their knowledge, without a smidgen of due process, without even supporting documentation… for a “crime” their relatives may or may not have committed, decades ago… is a complete inversion of the way our government is supposed to treat us.
Rest assured you’ll see more of this, because no matter how many brain-dead columns liberals pump out about how government debt doesn’t matter, the State is running out of money. Social Security is already collapsing – it’s been operating in the red since 2009, and will go completely bankrupt within 20 years. Some of the people looted by the ancient-debt collection program probably already belonged to the demographic guaranteed to get less out of Social Security than they paid in. Of course, the government isn’t going to shut down Social Security in 2033 because it’s exhausted its funding reserves; they’ll constantly cut benefits and pull money in from other sources to keep it floating for as long as possible. Unfortunately, other deathless entitlement programs and discretionary spending priorities will be competing for the same dollars. Raiding tax returns to hang onto cash we’ve already handed over during the year is just the lowest-hanging revenue fruit. You won’t enjoy learning what dangles upon the higher branches.