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House adopts SSDI limit

At 6:26 p.m. EST yesterday, the United States House of Representatives did the wrong thing.

House.voteOh, The Legal Genealogist will grant that the lower house of Congress may have acted for the right reasons — wanting to avoid the uncertainty and anxiety of threats of a government shutdown.

But it still did the wrong thing.

It adopted the so-called “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013” without amendment. Which means that, as of this moment, there are exactly 100 men and women — members of the United States Senate — standing between reason and good sense on one side and closing access to the Social Security Death Master File on the other.

The Death Master File, known to genealogists as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), has been a political football for some time.

Somewhere along the line somebody got a bee in his bonnet and came to the conclusion — without supporting evidence — that the Big Bad Boogie Man of identity theft was access to the SSDI. It was just because the Bad Guys could access the SSDI, or so the story went, that the IRS issued multiple refund checks, all to the same address, all to people who’d already been reported as dead.

Sure it was.

But when people want to believe something — and oh do people ever want to believe that there is some easy fix to identity theft and tax fraud — there’s no sense trying to confuse them with the facts.

And so, yesterday, at 6:26 p.m., the House of Representatives voted to take a record that is now public, that the courts have ruled is available to you and to me under the Freedom of Information Act, and close off public access for three years after a person’s death. And, during those three years, the law will say, the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply.

Read the bill for yourself. It’s online as House Report 113-290, and as the Ryan-Murray amendment to H.J. Res. 59.

And §203 of that bill, passed by the House, closes the SSDI:

The Secretary of Commerce shall not disclose to any person information contained on the Death Master File with respect to any deceased individual at any time during the 3-calendar-year period beginning on the date of the individual’s death…

Now I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: three years isn’t an insurmountable problem for most day-to-day genealogists. Most of us are looking at people who died 30 — or 300 — years ago, not three years ago.

But there are those in the genealogical community who do need that kind of access. Our community includes forensic genealogists, heir researchers, and those researching individual genetically-inherited diseases — and for those people, loss of immediate access to this resource would be devastating.

And although the bill does call for a certification program to allow some people earlier access, it won’t help those folks in our community. It won’t be set up soon enough and the language of the bill isn’t broad enough to cover them.

So we are down to this. One last chance. One final opportunity to convince 100 men and women. Our Senators.

And we have to act today.

Today, not tomorrow.

Today, as in right now.

The Senate can take this measure up at any time and we can absolutely expect that it’ll do it early next week if it doesn’t do it today.

We need to take the time to educate ourselves on the issues involved in this fight. I listed a series of resources to that end in yesterday’s blog post.

And we need to make one last effort to convince our Senators. There are two from each state. You can find out who your Senators are at the Senate’s web site. Just use the dropdown box, choose your state, and you’ll get the contact information.

The message is simple:

• The argument that big money will be saved if access to the Death Master File (SSDI) is limited is bogus. There’s no evidence to support it.

• There is evidence to support the conclusion that serious savings could be achieved if agencies like the IRS were required to use the SSDI, rather than shutting off access to it.

• If Congress still thinks the SSDI has to be closed for a time after a person’s death, the closure shouldn’t begin until a certification program for those who need more rapid access is in place.

• And the certification program should be open to anyone who can establish a legitimate need for access, including forensic genealogists, heir researchers, and those researching individual genetically-inherited diseases.

There isn’t anybody out there who cares about this as much as we do.

It’s up to us.

Speak up… or give up.

And I’m not giving up yet.

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