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.
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.
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.
We’re in for a bumpy ride. And we can’t let down our guard for one minute.
- § 7, H.R. 295, 113th Congress, 1st sess., Congress.gov (http://beta.congress.gov : accessed 29 Jan 2013). ↩
- “NUGENT, Richard, (1951 – ),” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (http://bioguide.congress.gov/ : accessed 29 Jan 2013). ↩
- See, e.g., H.R. 6205, 112th Congress, 2nd session, Thomas.gov (http://thomas.loc.gov : accessed 5 Aug 2012). ↩
- §§ 2-4, H.R. 295. ↩
- Ibid., § 1(a). ↩
- “Johnson named Chairman of Social Security Subcommittee,” Press Releases, Rep. Sam Johnson (http://samjohnson.house.gov/news/ : accessed 29 Jan 2013). ↩
- § 2, H.R. 3475, 112th Congress, 1st session, Thomas.gov (http://thomas.loc.gov : accessed 5 Aug 2012). ↩
- 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). ↩
- Judy G. Russell, “SSDI: Genealogy’s Public Enemy No. 1,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Feb 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 29 Jan 2013). ↩