Looks like the Social Security Administration’s brief foray into long-term debt collection has come to a screeching halt. Responding to public outrage over the sudden demand for old past-due amounts from people who have no idea what happened, the SSA has gone back to its previous 10-year limit on past-due amounts:

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.

The action comes after The Washington Post reported that the government was seizing state and federal tax refunds that were on their way to about 400,000 Americans who had relatives who owed money to the Social Security agency. In many cases, the people whose refunds were intercepted had never heard of any debt, and the debts dated as far back as the middle of the past century.

“I have directed an immediate halt to further referrals under the Treasury Offset Program to recover debts owed to the agency that are 10 years old and older pending a thorough review of our responsibility and discretion under the current law,” the acting Social Security commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, said in a statement.

Who thought this was a good idea in the first place? After all, SSA didn’t just decide to open the books all on its own. The 2008 farm bill passed by Congress lifted the statute of limitations on debt collection. Who inserted that codicil, and why?

It’s not just that amendment, though. The FTC notes on its website, as the Post’s Marc Fisher points out, that family members aren’t responsible for a relative’s debt to the government, and yet SSA tried to collect those debts from other family members anyway. Members of Congress erupted in outrage over the last couple of days — after constituents began demanding accountability for SSA’s actions. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) argued that SSA didn’t even follow the limits within that codicil by allowing for proper notification and by illegally seizing offset payments instead of processing the debt collection properly:

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Monday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that government agencies were apparently “not properly notifying individuals or allowing them to inspect records of the debt they supposedly owe, which are violations of the law.”

Grassley said that although Congress did authorize the government to seek payment on old debts, the law “says nothing about allowing the government to offset payments from an individual to pay debts not in his or her name. It is unclear where the government has that authority.”

Unclear, indeed.  What is clear is that by lifting the statute of legal limitations, Congress and SSA neglected to consult the statute of public relations limitations, and instead attempted to bully Americans with a shakedown. Congress needs to act to undo its enabling of this intimidation and restore the previous statute of limitations. If SSA can’t start a debt-collection process within ten years of an incident, then SSA needs better staffing, not more power to abuse.

Walter Olson hits this point at Overlawyered:

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!

If anything, the record-keeping and data-storage capabilities of the current age should argue for tighter statutes of limitation, not broader.