Victory! Social Security suspends stale-debt collection program

Huge win for justice and good sense: facing a mounting public furor, “The Social Security Administration announced Monday that it will immediately cease efforts to collect on taxpayers’ debts to the government that are more than 10 years old.” [WaPo] Credit goes above all to the Washington Post and its reporter Marc Fisher for exposing the most outrageous features of the IRS’s refund-interception program last week, as recounted in this space; I like to think I helped as well by beating the drum early and repeatedly since then with Cato’s help. Overlawyered’s Facebook post on the subject has been seen by more than 60,000 people and shared more than 700 times in the past few days. (Have you liked us yet?)

The next step should be to establish for the public record how the provision in question got slipped into the farm bill, and at whose behest. Congress’s refusal to be forthcoming on this topic speaks volumes about its lack of a felt sense of responsibility toward the people it represents.

And a theme I’ve been repeating for almost as long as I’ve been writing about law: statutes of limitations developed in civilized legal systems for a reason. They protect us not only from cost, uncertainty, and the misery of legal process, but from injustice of a hundred other kinds, and they protect society itself from spiraling into a legal war of all against all. Stop trying to abolish them!

More: Ed Morrissey, Megan McArdle. And here’s a Cato podcast just out on the subject in which Caleb Brown interviews me on the topic:


  • Walter are you ready for an audit of your 2013 taxes?

  • It sure seems to me that this administration will enforce the law only when it is publicly embarrassed into it – and not a moment before.

    This is an especially threatening problem given the general media’s lack of interest in probing government actions.

    Thank goodness for websites like Overlawyered and others who are instrumental not only in embarrassing our untrustworthy administration, but also embarrassing our sleeping general media.

  • […] Walter Olson hits this point at Overlawyered: […]

  • The language of the statute refers to ANY debt to ANY agency. (

    In other words, a HUD overpayment, or a VA overpayment, etc. etc.— these are all still out there. And, of course, SSA statements that they won’t collect might not necessarily preclude future admins from collecting.

    All of this is to say that the problem is the statute.

  • I agree with John — this is another case of the government doing the right thing only when it is first caught doing the wrong thing. And it is also more evidence that government is a revenue-maximizing enterprise to no less an extent than any for-profit business.

  • […] Victory! Social Security Administration announces Apr. 14 that it’s suspending collection of debts older than 10 years (& welcome Andrew Sullivan […]

  • […] Ending on a happy note, after WaPo exposed the Social Security administration stealing people’s tax refunds to pay off their grandparent’s supposed debts, the administration has now said it will stop. […]

  • Since the public furor was mainly over collecting debt from the children of debtors, I wonder why they stopped the whole program, rather than just that part of it.

  • While I make no pretense of understanding how government works I don’t understand why the person or persons who included this verbiage can’t be identified.

  • What about the tax returns that social security already took????????????