WASHINGTON -- With 11 days left before federal funding runs out for the nation’s highways, bridges and roads, lawmakers are rushing to find a way to pay for an extension. One potential fix: slash Social Security benefits for so-called fugitives.
This week the Senate is expected to move on a long-term extension to the Highway Trust Fund, which has been plagued by short funding patches since 2009. So far, few details have emerged on the duration of the bill or how the upper chamber plans to pay for it. But if Congress wants at least a six-year bill, they will have to come up with $100 billion in offsets.
Interest groups that lobby against Social Security cuts are worried about two options senators are eyeing to help pay for the fund. One measure would save money by eliminating Social Security benefits for people with outstanding warrants for their arrest, and another measure would prevent Social Security Disability Insurance recipients from simultaneously collecting unemployment insurance.
Republicans say they like the "fugitive felon" ban because they say it will prevent lawbreakers from receiving government benefits, but interest groups argue the measure would disproportionately affect the elderly and people with disabilities.
"Programs that are really important to older Americans are being used as piggy banks," Dan Adcock, policy director for the National Coalition to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, said in an interview.
Opponents of the fugitive felon proposal say federal law already prohibits Social Security payments to anyone fleeing law enforcement to avoid prosecution or imprisonment.
"Almost none of the individuals who would be affected by this provision are actual fugitives from justice and most of the warrants in question are many years old and involve minor infractions," the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities said in a July 16 letter to senators.
Justice in Aging, a nonprofit formerly known as National Senior Citizens Law Center, noted in a separate letter that the Social Security Administration recently tried to implement a similar provision, with court challenges in 2009 forcing the agency to repay $500 million it had withheld from people deemed fugitives. The letter highlighted several cases, including that of Miami resident Joseph Sutrynowics, whose Social Security Disability Insurance benefits were halted in 2008 because of a bad check he'd written to cover groceries in Texas more than a decade earlier.
Last week, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) introduced standalone legislation targeting Social Security benefits for felons, saying it would save $4.8 billion over 10 years.
“American taxpayers should not pay for disability and retirement benefits for those avoiding prosecution," Coats said. "This situation should be corrected immediately.