You’ve probably seen Charles Binder, the man in the cowboy hat, on TV. Mr. Binder is a lawyer whose job it is to get the government to fork over Social Security disability benefits for his clients. You may recall his soothing sign-off line:

We'll deal with the government. You have enough to worry about.

I have cited Heather Mac Donald’s groundbreaking 1995 City Journal piece on Social Security benefits more than once. Entitled “Welfare’s Next Vietnam,” the article shows how people who really aren’t unable to work game the disability system.

She introduced us to the Rivera family of Boston, children and grandchildren of Eulalia Rivera, who numbered 89 and among them collected $750,000 to $1 million a year in government benefits. Their main source of income was not Aid to Families with Dependent Children but federal disability payments:

Not that the Riveras suffer from crippling physical illnesses or injuries. Most of the family's disabled members collect benefits for their "nerves." As Eulalia's son Juan, a divorced father of five, told the Boston Globe: "I have a nervous condition. . . . There is no way I could work." He pointed to his hands, which were shaking. "Look at this," he said: "I'm having an attack right now."  

I'll refrain from employing the cliche about making out like bandits. But the hardworking Riveras might have done even better if they'd met our friend Charles Binder.

According to a Wall Street Journal profile, the Binder brothers, Harry and Charles, began representing applicants for Social Security disability benefits in 1970, “when the field was a professional backwater.” Last year, they collected $88 million in fees for leading clients to the nirvana of disability benefits.

The disability business is booming. It was the Social Security Administration that set the stage for the rise such firms as BinderAndBinder:

Having firms like Binder & Binder deal with the government was supposed to be part of the solution for a federal disability-insurance system staggering under a growing backlog of cases. The Social Security Administration figured cases would move through the pipeline faster if more claimants were guided by experts.

So in 2004 the agency and Congress relaxed rules governing representation, making it easier for nonlawyer advocates to get paid. Binder swiftly hired lower-paid nonlawyers to handle cases, ramped up advertising and began processing far greater numbers of clients.

Since these businesses are paid only if their clients obtain benefits, there must be an enormous temptation to shade cases in the client’s favor:

Binder & Binder has been reprimanded by the Social Security Administration for backdating documents, and the agency is investigating whether it forged signatures of ex-employees. Five former Binder employees said in interviews that staffers routinely withheld from government submissions medical records that they believed to be potentially damaging to client claims. The firm had a system, they said, that used red stickers to highlight unfavorable information in client files, and that material often would be left out of court submissions.

In a May 4, 2005, memo sent to "lawyers, writers, and folks who review meds," or medical records, Charles Binder wrote that a general principle was, "if it is not harmful to the client, it should be submitted." The words "not harmful" appear in bold letters.

While the involvement of firms such as BinderAndBinder the time required to obtain benefits is indeed shorter. But this hasn't reduced the Social Security Administration's workload. In fact, there has been a dramatic upswing in the number of applicants—hardly surprising since Charlie appears on my TV several times a week, advertising for business.