If ever there was a trial balloon that should be shot down, it is the one now being lofted by the Social Security administration.

Why? Because the proposal would sharply and unfairly restrict the rights of elderly and disabled persons to appeal the denial of Social Security, Medicare, or Supplemental Security Income benefits.As matters now stand, anyone denied benefits is entitled to an appeal before a federal administrative law judge, then to a review by an Appeals Council. Ultimately, the case could go to a federal court. Evidence supporting a claim is presented at the hearing, but additional evidence can be offered as an appeal progresses.

Under the tentative new proposal, all evidence would have to be submitted seven days before the hearing by the administrative law judge, and decisions along the appeals route would be made on the basis of that evidence. If an applicant overlooked evidence or found new supporting information, a new application would have to be filed and the process started all over.

Why such a change? Ostensibly to speed up the process that now involves delays of four to six months in challenging a decision. If an applicant carries the appeal all the way to the federal courts, where there is a backlog of 44,000 cases, the process can consume many more months, even years.

But since when is a big backlog of cases an excuse for further impeding justice? And since when could such a backlog be reduced by requiring anyone encountering new evidence to go back to square one?

The backlog wouldn't be so great if the Social Security Administration did a better job of handling claims in the first place. The agency has lost more than 50 percent of its cases on appeal. Such a high figure strongly suggests that the agency must be making a lot of bad decisions.

If the Social Security Administration's plan for restricting appeals isn't killed by the objections it is already encountering, President-elect Bush should administer the final blow after he enters the Oval Office.