It may be that they are from the government and that they are here to help. Hard to accept that, but read on.
Back in 1969 Robert Redford and Paul Newman starred in an American western titled Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (20th Century Fox 1969). It had some great quotes in it, but one of my favorites is Butch telling Sundance "boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals." That's one way of putting it. A fairly colorful way. Years later, I was reminded of it during the closing scene in The Matrix (Warner Brothers 1999) when Neo quits seeing the surface and starts to see all the little ones and zeros that are the real world underneath. Our world is complex, and seeing beyond the surface can be a real challenge.
Late last week I received a link to a document purportedly regarding U.S. federal education spending. It is titled "Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute to Committee Print Offered by Mr. Scott," and purportedly resides on a U.S. House of Representatives website. The document leads with discussion of the "Rebuild America's Schools Grant Program," Section 20001. It goes on from there with sections about school "Construction," and "Indian education" (which is likely an unfortunate and inappropriate reference to indigenous peoples), and specific programs for institutions, occupations, and even tuition grants. It is all about education. Well, on the surface.
At about page 114, section 21001, there comes the "Labor Matters" header. I am indebted to the soul that managed to read through 114 pages of education funding proposals and actually found this other reference. It begins with money for "Mine safety," OSHA, "enforcement," and "activities." Then, on page 115, the other shoe drops. There we find
"$121,000,000 to the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs for carrying out activities of the Office relating to claims activity, policy and standards development, and monitoring of State workers' compensation programs."
I checked in with my old friend Horace Middlemier.* He had already read this, and commented on the amount. He said "I know $121,000,000 isn't a lot of money, but this could be just the beginning." I'm not sure where you get the "not a lot of money." I told Horace that seemed like a good deal of money, about enough to pay 800 analysts at a total cost (salary and benefits) of $150,000 each. My first thought, though, was just give me one percent of that total and you can "color me gone."
It has not been that long ago that we all talked seriously about the potential for federal interference in workers' compensation. The signs have been there for a long time, dating at least to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970 and the National Commission on Workers' Compensation report in 1972, see Highlights from 1972 Commission in Workers' Compensation. Despite the history since that report, there are a fair number who are turning out now to celebrate the 50th anniversary of it and commemorate the effort. Another post on that topic is Where do we go from here (March 2016). In truth, that effort and report has not changed much of anything for the better over the last 50 years. A great many of the "reforms" it did spawn were nothing short of disastrous temporary detours. Some argue that there is not much there to celebrate. I leave that to the reader.
More recently, we discussed this federal interest in workers' compensation during the National Conversation, see Some Geeks Gathered in Dallas (May 2016). That was one of the highlight meetings of my career. There were no agendas or presentations or PowerPoints. We just had a great conversation. In reality I spent most of my time listening to the others. I learned a lot about history, perspectives, and perceptions.
You can learn a lot by listening (No one sent me $121,000,000; not that I know of). That meeting will stick with me as it was the last time I saw David DePaolo. His was an insightful and at times abrupt perspective on our world. On November 4, 2021, the Comp Laude program will present "What Would David Say," to try and channel his unique perspectives on today's issues, five years since he left us. I am honored to have been invited to participate on that panel. As I write this, I pondered what David would say about federalization and returned to what he did say about it.
Federalization was on people's minds back in 2016. There was a lot of discussion among us geeks about the 1972 report, a letter then recently written by some legislators, and the probable plans that President Clinton was likely to look towards in the opening days of her administration. The bottom line is that there are those who believe that workers' compensation benefits are not adequate, and they advocate for increased statutory amendments. There is little, if any, discussion in that regard about whether such increases would be likewise beneficial to business that bears the cost, or ultimately those of us who purchase goods or services.
In fairness, there are some that will never believe that any government program is sufficient. Remember when Credence Clearwater mentioned such an analysis in 1969? In Fortunate Son, they say "when you ask them 'how much should we give'," well "they only answer More! More! More!" In the struggle of modern society we see an environment of limited economic resources and a propensity to spend as if there is no tomorrow. There is currently a U.S. national debt of over $26 trillion ($26,000,000,000,000). Some question what level of debt is actually sustainable. Whenever we borrow through our limit, seemingly we just raise the limit. Not having resources has never stopped us, but some suggest pace of spending is increasing. Twenty trillion of that is attributable just to the last 21 years. That is twenty-thousand billion dollars.
At the National Conversation in 2016, commentator Bob Wilson (the moderator of the Conversation) suggested that he perceived a parallel for federal intervention on the horizon. He noted the manner in which the government insinuated itself into workers' compensation through the Medicare Secondary Payer Act. That was passed in 1980 and started to finally have a workers' compensation impact around the turn of the century.
Some would argue the cause and effect there are inverted; they would argue that workers' compensation insinuated itself into Medicare; that it affects Medicare. Those folks forget that workers' compensation was here long before Medicare was created in 1965 as part of a massive expansion of government wealth transfer and socialization. The early workers' compensation programs were fifty years old when Medicare was born, and even the last state's program, Mississippi, was nearing adulthood by then. No, Medicare and the federal government came for workers' compensation in 1980, striving to correct flaws and poor planning in the design and implementation of Medicare's social welfare programming.
If Social Security next comes for workers' compensation, it should similarly be clear that all but two state workers' compensation systems (Arkansas and Mississippi) already existed when Social Security was enacted back in 1935. No, workers' compensation never came for Social Security either.
Mr. Wilson suggested in 2016 that there could be a similar "Social Security Disability Secondary Payer Act" that would allow a logical path for the federal government to siphon some money out of workers' compensation to assuage the upside-down financial crisis we face. While there is focus periodically on that $26 trillion, and growing, hard-debt, there is almost never any discussion of the "unfunded liabilities" (promises made without attached dedicated revenue streams) that are Medicare and Social Security. The "real" total debt including such promises is estimated at about $123 Trillion, and climbing.
Every few years, they warn us that Social Security is moving toward insolvency. Last month, The Washington Post noted that currently the sky will fall in 2033, or 2057, or perhaps the sky will forever be propped up by stop-gap solutions, funded with more debt? See, the funding was never adequate because everyone hates paying taxes; that has been exacerbated by us all living much longer lives these days, thanks to modern medicine and good living. But, like it or not, these social systems for retirement and medical care are not self-sustaining and will persistently require bailouts. Or, perhaps there is some plan to inflate out of all of this? I will address this soon in another post, but suffice it to say here that inflation is already upon us. How is your grocery bill lately?
So, the federal office of workers' compensation (an agency meant to maintain and manage a program for the federal employees) will do one hundred million dollars worth of monitoring of state systems? Will that be "the beginning of the end, or is it the end of the beginning" for the Tenth Amendment, state authority, and our embattled system of balanced federalism? Before answering, consider the "power of the purse," speed limits, motorcycle helmets, drinking ages, and texting while driving, See Four Times the Government Held Highway Funding Hostage (The Atlantic 2014). Some will argue uniformity and centralization are positive, others see benefits and detriments in various government forms. I often warn students in class to consider whether consistency would mean everyone has the system you personally love or the system you don't.
In a broader sense, will we get our hundred million's worth? The bigger question perhaps is can we get our $123 trillion's worth, but we could begin with the small stones. Confucius long ago used that to explain incrementalism. While it may be that incrementalism is the villain that got us here, perhaps it is potentially part of the solution as well? Maybe an inverse Dirkson maneuver in which we remove a "hundred million here and a hundred million there and pretty soon we are talking about real savings?" In the theme of Alice's Restaurant, what if that led to "a billion here and a billion there" or even a thousand billion (trillion)?
Will it ever bother anyone that there is never any question about whether these thousands of billions of dollars invested in pet projects ever accomplishes anything other than further proposals for "More! More! More!?" In the end, with the budget deficit, the debt ceiling, and discussion of a platinum $1 trillion dollar coin, will this state workers' compensation monitoring proposal remain in the federal budget moving forward? Perhaps the Department of Labor can produce an annual version of the 1972 report? Do states need advice or direction on the management of workers' compensation programs from the fiscal experts in Washington?
It is intriguing to see this federal intervention subject raised again. It reminds me of Ronald Reagan's famous "most terrifying words in the English language" quote. It is likely that more government is not the solution. Send me a check $121,000,000 and I will be pleased to write you an annual report criticizing whatever you wish criticized. On second thought, make it a money order, I'm just sayin'.
Disclaimer: WorkersCompensation.com publishes independently generated writings from a variety of workers' compensation industry stakeholders. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of WorkersCompensation.com.