The length to which the federal government can go to make itself look heartless and foolish is, at times, breathtaking. This is one of those times.
The latest case study came last week when the Washington Post revealed that the government has been confiscating taxpayers' refunds to pay decades-old debts that may have been incurred by their parents. Often those debts are not nefarious, but instead were overpayments made by the government itself.
No, really. We aren't kidding.
For the past three years, the Social Security Administration has been intercepting federal and state income tax refund checks from about 400,000 families to pay debts that the agency acknowledges are usually more than 10 years old and likely incurred by the parents of the current taxpayers.
This unpleasant circumstance apparently was made possible by a single sentence buried deep in, of all places, the 2008 farm bill.
No one should spend much intellectual capital pondering the connection between a farm bill and collection of old Social Security debts. It is unlikely there is one. It is just how things get done in Washington. Sometimes the results are benign, but sometimes things get messy.
For example, consider the case of J. Marc Dion, a former police officer who is a lawyer in Westlake Village. He had his $2,000 tax refund intercepted this year because Social Security says he received too much in disability benefits while he was in law school more than a decade ago.
Dion won a judgment against Social Security in 2010, but the debt collection continues.
"None of it makes sense, and I'm an attorney," Dion told the Post. "You can't get a straight answer from anybody."
But apparently a couple of senators are going to try.
The Post's stories caught the eyes of Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Barbara A Mikulski, D-Md.
The two senators fired off a joint letter to the head of the Social Security Administration asking that the agency halt the practice.
The senators pointed out that families —... are unfairly being held responsible for decades-old errors at the Social Security Administration -- even though many of these taxpayers were children at the time the errors were made.
"Garnishing taxpayers' refunds to pay for debts that are more than a decade old -- and incurred through no fault of their own -- is a policy that cannot be continued in good conscience."
No, it can't.
The Social Security Administration responded to the news story and letter by stopping the policy. But that isn't enough. The two outraged senators have the power to introduce legislation that would make sure this process can't be resurrected somewhere down the road. They should exercise that power as soon as possible.