News from the SSDI front

There’s news on the Social Security Death Index front — some bad, some worse, and some that just might possibly end up being at least neutral if not actually good.

Bad news

The bad news is that the 113th Congress — elected in 2012 and sworn in not even four weeks ago — is already taking aim at public access to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) or, in government-speak, the Death Master File (DMF). A Florida Republican who was one of the leaders of this anti-access movement in the last Congress has already introduced a bill that would close the SSDI for up to three years after a person’s death to everyone except certified to have “a legitimate fraud prevention interest in accessing the information.”1

Rep. Richard Nugent was first elected to Congress in 2010 from Florida’s 5th Congressional District; the Congressional District lines were changed by the Florida Legislature and he now represents the 11th District. His background is largely political and law enforcement. He was a deputy county sheriff and then was elected the Sheriff in Henrando County, Florida, before he ran for Congress.2 He was a sponsor or co-sponsor of the bills in the last Congress that would close public access to the SSDI for a time.3

In a couple of critical ways, Nugent’s bill isn’t all that bad. First, it starts out by focusing on where the real problem is: the failure of the Internal Revenue Service to implement and enforce strict antifraud measures in the tax return system.4 Let’s face it, folks: if it wasn’t possible for Mr. Identity Thief to file a tax return using the name and social security number of a dead man, this wouldn’t be anywhere near the issue it is today. And H.R. 295 does address that first.

Second, it doesn’t close off access to the SSDI forever. Section 7(a) of the bill provides that “The Secretary of Commerce shall not disclose information contained on the Death Master File to any person with respect to any individual who has died at any time during the previous two calendar years in which the request for disclosure is made or the succeeding calendar year ….”5 That language is a little fuzzy, but there’s no way it can be read to mean more than three years.

And here again, let’s face it, folks: for the vast majority of us who are day-to-day genealogists, that time period really isn’t critical for us. The vast majority of us simply don’t need instant access to the SSDI.

But that leads to the bad part of Nugent’s bill. Because there are those in the genealogical community who do need that kind of access, and who would be shut off by the language in the bill that makes access possible only for fraud prevention. Our community includes forensic genealogists, heir researchers, and those researching individual genetically-inherited diseases — and for those people, loss of this resource would be devastating.

So we’re in for a fight again in the 113th Congress, first to ensure that public access to the SSDI isn’t shut off completely and second to ensure that those genealogists who do need access without delay get it without delay.

Worse news

The worse news — totally expected but still… — was the reappointment of Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) as chair of the House Ways & Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security.6 This is the subcommittee that gets the first say on legislation like Nugent’s.

Johnson has been an unrelenting foe of public access to the SSDI and has specifically targeted genealogists as The Bad Guys in the fight against identity theft. Hearings held by his subcommittee last year were specifically designed to make genealogists the scapegoat while deliberately keeping the genealogical community from having a fair chance to present our views. And Johnson personally introduced legislation that would do what Nugent’s bill doesn’t: close public access to the SSDI completely, forever and a day, amen.7

There may be somebody in that 113th Congress who’d have been a worse choice from our perspective for that chairmanship than Sam Johnson — but for the life of me I can’t figure out who that might be.

This is just plain bad news.

News that might end up being good

The only even potentially positive sign as this new Congress takes shape and the Obama Administration starts organizing its second term is the departure of Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue at the end of his six-year term.

Astrue, a Republican, was named to the post in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and had previously served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations.8

And, like Johnson, he was no friend of the genealogical community. His positions were, in fact, so antithetical to our interests that The Legal Genealogist labeled him a year ago as Genealogy’s Public Enemy No. 1.9

He was of the opinion that closing all Social Security records for as much as 75 years wouldn’t hurt genealogists at all. That his agency shouldn’t have to bother answering our requests for copies of our parents’ and grandparents’ applications for Social Security numbers (SS-5 forms). That if Congress didn’t close the SSDI, maybe he could find a way to do it himself.

To Commissioner Astrue, genealogists weren’t citizens and taxpayers exercising our rights to public access to public documents (that, by the way, we pay for). We were nuisances, gadflies. And to any so-called public servant with an attitude like that, all I can say is… Good riddance.

But it’s only potentially good news for two reasons. The big one is, we don’t know who the next Social Security Commissioner will be. There’s no news out of the Administration on who’ll be nominated, and given the hot potato political issue that Social Security is right now whoever is nominated is bound to be in for a fight. We can hope the next Commissioner will at least listen to our concerns but we are sure not going to be a priority to that person, no matter who it is.

The second reason is that policies like this often trickle up from the agency staff to the head of the agency rather than the other way around. If the Social Security Administration mid-level bureaucrats are the driving force behind this anti-genealogist attitude, it may not make much difference who the Commissioner is… unless he or she is a genealogist.

We can only hope.

Bottom line

We’re in for a bumpy ride. And we can’t let down our guard for one minute.


 
SOURCES

  1. § 7, H.R. 295, 113th Congress, 1st sess., Congress.gov (http://beta.congress.gov : accessed 29 Jan 2013).
  2. NUGENT, Richard, (1951 – ),” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (http://bioguide.congress.gov/ : accessed 29 Jan 2013).
  3. See, e.g., H.R. 6205, 112th Congress, 2nd session, Thomas.gov (http://thomas.loc.gov : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  4. §§ 2-4, H.R. 295.
  5. Ibid., § 1(a).
  6. Johnson named Chairman of Social Security Subcommittee,” Press Releases, Rep. Sam Johnson (http://samjohnson.house.gov/news/ : accessed 29 Jan 2013).
  7. § 2, H.R. 3475, 112th Congress, 1st session, Thomas.gov (http://thomas.loc.gov : accessed 5 Aug 2012).
  8. Matthew Heimer, “Social Security chief Astrue retires,” Market Watch, The Wall Street Journal online, posted 29 Jan 2013 (http://samjohnson.house.gov/news/ : accessed 29 Jan 2013).
  9. Judy G. Russell, “SSDI: Genealogy’s Public Enemy No. 1,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Feb 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 29 Jan 2013).
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47 Responses to News from the SSDI front

  1. Thanks, Judy. This is the most reasoned and sensible status update on the issue that I’ve seen. There is a lot of angst on this issue, but thank you for pointing out that for most family historians a three year wait will make little difference. For professionals who are producing reports in a limited time frame, for forensic genealogists, those tracking diseases, and of course those tracing an heir (again, hoping to get the job done in a reasonable time period) this difference is crucial, troubling, and unnecessary. AND BECAUSE WE ARE ALL PART OF THE LARGER GENEALOGICAL COMMUNITY, let’s support each other. And let’s stand up to misleading, bullying tactics. I think I finally get it. Thank you for reasoning this out, it was very helpful.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Diane. Yes, we all do need to support those in our community who really need the access this bill would deny. The very idea of delaying the return of a serviceman’s remains to his family or the passing of an estate to those entitled to it or denying a family member critical information about a history of inherited medical conditions because of this sort of silliness is just appalling.

      • Keith Bouldin says:

        When the time comes to contact our representatives in congress those are just the issues to raise.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          And we’ll all have to be in touch with our representatives when the time comes. It’s not somebody else’s job, Keith, it’s ours — all of ours.

  2. Genealogists as the bad guys? Gadflies and nuisances? Wait a minute. I’m still fairly new, I guess, and I have never heard of this debate posed in these terms before. Scapegoating genealogists, indeed.

    Is there some mechanism through which genealogists can petition Congress to be heard, and to remind the public of all the good services that genealogists perform? You would be a wonderful person to testify before Congress. Your writing is crisp, clear, on point, and witty. You speak that way, too, on the webinar I heard about post-slavery laws on property.

    What can we all do? How can the genealogical community be galvanized? A public outcry did some good (I think) on the Georgia Archives issue. Why not the SSDI issue?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      (a) If you go to the right hand side of the blog, there are categories. Click on SSDI and it’ll give you all my posts in reverse chronological order. Reading through them (in the right order!) will bring you right up to date on this issue, Mariann. (b) The genealogical community had truly excellent representatives ready, willing and able to testify before Congress. They weren’t allowed to. He who holds the gavel calls the shots, and the shot-caller wasn’t interested in what we had to say. (c) The petition system was tried and was an absolutely positively abysmal failure. So this is going to be a one on one, one-genealogist-to-his/her-own-Congresscritter educational effort. And lots of good information on how to get involved will be in those older blog posts.

  3. Wendy says:

    Thanks, Judy. I appreciate the update. We are definitely in for a battle. I guess only time will tell.

    Thanks again and I enjoy and appreciate all your posts!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Wendy. Yep, we’re in for it — unless Congress fights enough about other things that they don’t get around to us this year!

  4. Jodi says:

    Sigh! :( Thanks for a great update as usual.

  5. Sharon Sergeant says:

    New legislative sessions spawn many old saws, but there may be a straightforward way to alleviate the misinformation.

    This month (January 2013) President Obama signed into law the improper payments legislation that he began by directive in 2009, requiring Federal agencies to use the SSDI to prevent improper payments, just as many businesses do to prevent fraud.

    Do Not Pay Initiative
    http://fcw.com/articles/2013/01/10/obama-signs-do-not-pay-legislation.aspx

    H.R.4053 – Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Improvement Act of 2012
    http://beta.congress.gov/bill/112th-congress/house-bill/4053?q=H.R.+4053

    Once the IRS and SSA correct their own problems, the many hardships caused to honest individuals, used to accelerate the emotional legislative “remedies,” will be dwarfed by the overarching issues being addressed.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The problem is “trusting” that Congress understands that you don’t fix a problem of not using records by closing records.

  6. Don says:

    Judy,
    I must thank you for inventing the term “congresscritter” as being not only a completely accurate descriptor, but a lyrical term as well. I do hope you won’t prohibit using it in communication with my local representative, who is deserving of the sobriquet.
    Don

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I certainly didn’t invent it, Don. I suspect somebody back in the 1780s or 1790s probably used it first! So it’s definitely free for anyone to use.

  7. Honey Lanham says:

    Judy,
    I have been a family researcher for over 50 years. I truly value the records and archives of this country. I have also been involved in politics a bit. What really drives elected politicians are the letters, emails, and phone calls they receive from constituents. I the olden days, many politicians actually weighed the pro and con letters to decide how to vote. Elected politicians may have many entangling alliances but a ton of mail can sway them. Genealogy has the gross numbers to do it.
    Petitions are a waste of time and effort.
    I belong to 2 very effective organizations (which will remain unnamed here as I do not want to get side-tracked on this forum but you may contact me for the names) which use an automated email service. The tag line on that service is
    “powered by CQ Roll Call ©2013″
    Anyway, these 2 organizations each have very specific goals. So much so, that I barely read the letters to my representatives, I just sent the emails.
    There is a format where you fill out a form once with your name and address, and
    the system finds your representatives, and thereafter you just click SEND for each alert. I get about one alert per month from each organization unless a series of votes are up on their subjects. I click ALERT, I click SEND, and my job is done.
    I know that this process has turned the tides on several votes.
    The problem is that some one or organization must pay for this service. Perhaps Ancestry could be persuaded to do so.
    It could also be used against states that try to shut down their records.
    Frankly, I would love to see these politicians hammered by the genealogy community.
    Sincerely,
    Honey Lanham

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Honey, my major concern with an approach like this is that we don’t have the numbers some organizations have, so we have to work smarter. Form letters tend to be regarded as one viewpoint, unless they come in by the thousands and thousands. Since we don’t have those thousands and thousands per representative, my view is that individual thoughtful letters make much more sense for us.

  8. Honey Lanham says:

    Judy,
    Trust me, they do not read the letters–thoughtful or not. A staff member or volunteer glances at the letter and puts it in a pro or con stack. That is it. The representative gets a tally.
    Most of us do not have time to sit down, craft a letter, find a stamp and envelope, and mail it in a timely manner. In fact, I am writing you from Uruguay at this moment. They probably do not even open letters with foreign stamps.
    I get automatic responses from the legislators for every automatic letter I send. They thank me for my genuine concern, they tell me about their genuine concern, and they talk about everything except how they will actually vote. They are still counting the letters from their constituents before they decide how they will vote.
    We do have the numbers! Genealogy is the first, second or third use of the internet depending upon who is counting. Porn is supposedly first on any chart.
    We especially have the numbers if it is very easy to make our opinions known.
    We all want information. We want it fast. And we want it as cheap as possible because we want a lot of information. And we want to spend our time doing research–not writing letters to the mail rooms of our representatives.
    If a few clicks on the computer will wake up the “idiots” (congress critter is too kind, in my opinion) then we could do it. Ancestry, Family Search, Eastman, Cyndi’s List, etc, all have thousands of users per day. And they know how to use computers or they would not be there. Get them excited, make it easy, and things will happen. And you have the credentials and information on the legislation to do it! Get out there in front of this parade!
    Easy for me to say from far, far away. I am sure you just love other people telling you what to do and how to do it.
    Seriously, thank you for your research and information. I found you on Eastman’s Newsletter today. And, I am also serious that you could do it.
    Sincerely,
    Honey Lanham

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      >> you have the credentials and information on the legislation to do it! Get out there in front of this parade!

      I’ve been out in front for more than a year. More, a single person can’t do.

  9. Sammie Lee says:

    I am a genealogist and I have worked for many years with family historians as a library Associate at the Dallas (Texas) Public Library. Most of my 23 years at DPL were spent in the Genealogy Department with the past three in the DPL Texas and Dallas Archives. I often assist forensic genealogists by searching the records we are addressing. More times than not these genealogists are working for large gas and oil companies who need names of heirs to secure leases. I may be naive, but it occurs to me that these companies would hate to see our access to these records cut off, especially the SSDI. It would make sense to me to try to interest them in the effort to keep these records open. Don’t they have one of the largest group of Washington lobbyists?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The issue has to get onto the radar of companies like the ones you mention, Sammie. Those are the kinds of allies the forensic genealogists need for this fight. And every genealogist who uses these records for other than our own family history (and including those who use it for our own MEDICAL history) has to get involved here.

  10. Peter Adamson Meredith says:

    I was going to provide an essay about how both lawyers and bureaucrats pursue the easiest and most inane way to “solve” a problem, but then again maybe more people will read this and say, “Hey, sounds good, why not?”

    Why not just format the SSDI public record to exclude the Social Security number?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Hey, hey… easy on the lawyers. But as for formatting the SSDI, how are you going to know you have the right John Jones born 1920 in Chicago?

      • Peter Adamson Meredith says:

        Really Judy, perhaps you’re exceptional and know all your cousins and ancesters’social numbers.You must be an attorney.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          In this context, I’m a genealogist who knows the value of being able to access all relevant information to distinguish one person of the same same from another.

    • John says:

      Under the Freedom of Information Act (until the various legislation written about becomes law) the SSN of a dead person is public information. And for use in combating fraud, the SSN is a key piece of data to distinguish between similarly named individuals. Frankly, if it’s public enough for a “company to get access to to fight fraud, it’s public enough for us, the public. And the fact that some companies set the bar so low that fraud can be committed with that kind of data shames the company being defrauded, not the public. But somehow, even that gets deflected from the real problem onto the SSDI.

      The IRS problem regarding ID theft of the dead isn’t due to the existence of the SSDI, it’s that the IRS gets its own copy weekly direct from SSA but never used it. The shame is the way the IRS, especially Taxpayer Advocate Olsen, deflected the problem from them not using tools in their possession to the SSDI’s existence. If anything truly is at the heart of the threat to the SSDI, it’s the IRS, their failure until just now incorporate the SSDI in their asntifraud efforts that resulted in heartbreaking stories that were at the core the reasons for Sam Johnson’s legislation.

  11. Linda Shaw says:

    Judy, My aunt forwarded your article on the SSDI to me. I have been researching my famiy genealogy for about 17 years and the SSDI has been of tremendous help in sometimes providing just enough information to lead me to other records in my search for otherwise elusive ancestors and relatives. In fact, in 2008 I found one of my first cousins on SSDI. He had lost contact with our family over the years and attempts to find him had proved unsuccessful. Needless to say, I would much rather have found him living. On the plus side, once I located and contacted the funeral home, they provided pictures which they had taken before his burial since he left no information on any relatives. It was so sad that I found him just two months after his passing. On the plus side, if there is one, I was able to contact his siblings and children who had tried to find him for several years. They were able to at least contact the funeral home, visit his grave and achieve some sort of closure. Without SSDI’s current availability, we wouldn’t have known about his death for some time, and possibly the funeral home would have no longer had the pictures available. The three year waiting period just makes no sense.

    I recently found another first cousin, from my uncle’s second marriage. It was his mother’s listing on SSDI that led me to the State where he lives, and the rest as they say is history. My “new” cousin had tried to locate his father and paternal relatives, but had hit a brick wall. It has been an exciting time for all of us and may never have happened if not for the SSDI.

    So, go get ‘em! The bureaucrats should have more important issues on their plates than to make unavailable a source which can provide so much to surviving family members.

  12. George Dawson says:

    Welcome to Clowntown, Yes my dear where your elected offical gets to run around with a horn and floppy feet for 4 years !! The truly sad part is somebody voted for this clown. The general public has no clue as to how Goverment really works because were too involved in our own day to day existence,and they can’t thank you enough. Youpay for this and they give you that!!!

  13. Veronica says:

    Judy, if there is ever a petition to sign, I’m sure you can count on Canadian genealogists, too. I will gladly sign anything if it helps not to shut down the SSDI. If it happens, it will be really devastating!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thank you, Veronica. More helpful would be if our friends north of the border who have Americans cousins they’ve found using the SSDI would identify the Congressional representative for the area where the family came from and write to explain how the resource is useful even beyond our borders.

  14. MikeF says:

    Judy,

    Thanks for the update on the SSDI situation. It seems to me the focus for us, as you indicate in the silver lining of the bad news, is limiting the scope of any blacked out access, as in to a 2 or 3 year period.

    Also though, the genealogical community needs to realize that a state by state focus on getting states to maintain up-to-date and accessible death *indexes* is important in order to have a parallel system not dependent on the SSDI (index only and normal 50 year or whatever restrictions would continue to apply to the actual death certificates). While the NGS and FGS do realize this as part of open records access issues, I suspect many individual genealogists do not.

    Any legislator of the federal or state levels who maintain that an index alone, which we mostly use as a finding aid to obituaries, is in itself harmful even when stripped of other information like social security numbers, should indeed just put a clown suit on.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re absolutely right, Mike, that there are state battles to be fought related to the SSDI and indeed to state vital records themselves.

  15. Neal says:

    Genealogists also use the SSDI to help in finding relatives of all the unclaimed bodies that local jurisdictions are dealing with.

    Also, it seems every special interest has swarms of lobbyists in Washington. Does the genealogy community have any lobbyists?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yes, Neal, genealogists assisting coroners are included in the group we need to protect in terms of access. And, no, we as a community don’t have a lobbyist as that term is used in Washington. K Street lobbyists don’t come cheap.

  16. I’d known for years that I would find out about my father’s passing through SSDI – and only the SSDI. When it finally happened, I was able to use the information to track down the funeral home, contact the DC informant, and ultimately retrieve my father’s ashes for burial. I feel certain that I am not the only one for whom this has happened.

    I, too, have written my individual representative and both senators for open access to SSDI. We must continue to publicize the issue within the community for which you do yeoman’s work Judy. We must continue to look creatively for partners outside of genealogy who may not know their interests are at stake such as Sammie’s Oil company suggestion. What about those in the burgeoning ID Protection Services field? I feel certain they are well aware SSDI is not the source of SSN theft.

    Genealogist are a pretty connected bunch, coming from incredibly disparate backgrounds in our ‘other lives’. We must seek to tap those connections and resources for partnership. I’m open to suggestion.

    Thank you Judy

  17. Ina Getzoff says:

    One of the reasons that congress is choosing three years is that when the IRS gets a tax form they only match the name and social security number. They don’t know if claimed refunds are accurate or not. Now they want to keep us as genealogists out of the SSDI Master File because of their own incompetence. We don’t want the numbers for anything illegal we just want the names, date of birth and death and place of each. Congress is continuing their “party of no” attitude.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Closing the records is the easy — and stupid — knee-jerk reaction here, Ina.

    • Cathi Massey says:

      It may well be that IRS employees are not incompetent about matching things up – simply short staffed, and without the time to do any routine lengthy verifications.

      If they’re in anything like the situation in my own agency, hiring freezes and attrition are taking their toll. We’re all frazzled from carry the workload of an office that used to have 40 or 50% more staff, and we realize that many thinks are getting done in a very superficial way.

      Cut ‘em a little slack, folks! We’re all trying the best we know how to make your tax dollars go farther.

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        Nobody is (or should be) criticizing the employees, Cathi. It’s the agency and the government priorities that are being criticized, and rightfully so. If a fraction of the money sent out in fraudulent refunds was redirected to prevention, we’d all be better off.

      • Brent says:

        indeed, the House seems intent on further cutting the budget of the IRS.

  18. Barbara Dempsey says:

    Just wanted to add something to this discussion, If it had not been for the freedon of access, my nieces and nephews would not have know that their father was deceased… It was too late to retrieve his ashes, but they were able to find out information, at one point prior to his death they were able to send message via ssa. /closing the records would create a mess for young adults trying to relocate families

  19. Pingback: U.S. Congress: “Social Security Death Index — Another Bill Limiting Access — HR 466″ | LJ INFOdocket

  20. Pingback: Last day of the NGS conference | GenVoyage

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