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Column: Biden needs to clean house at the Social Security Administration, and fast

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The Social Security Administration needs new leadership.
(Associated Press)

Donald Trump’s obnoxious effort to plant a fifth column of administrative vandals inside federal agencies just before President Biden’s inauguration has been widely reported.

The situation at the Social Security Administration is a little different. There, the vandals weren’t installed just lately, but back in 2019. That doesn’t make their removal any less urgent, since they’ve been eroding Social Security from within for some two years now.

They’re Andrew Saul, the Social Security commissioner, and David Black, the deputy commissioner. Trump appointed both to terms that technically expire in 2025, but that’s insufficient reason to keep them in place.

Whatever Biden wants to do with Social Security, both in the long term and the short term and the long term, is reflected in the commissioner.

Max Richtman, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare

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Social Security advocates have been pressing Biden to get rid of them — Social Security Works, one of the leading advocacy groups, urged Biden to dump them on Inauguration Day. He hasn’t done so yet, but the program’s supporters figure that’s only because he has a few more pressing matters on his plate.

But Social Security can’t remain on the back burner for long. The program’s administrative resources need to be shored up, to counteract years of underfunding that have resulted in the closing of field offices, long waits on phone lines, and a steady decline in other measures of customer service for the nation’s biggest public program.

Democratic Party orthodoxy, moreover, calls for an improvement in Social Security benefits, especially for the lowest-income workers and oldest retirees, and an expansion of benefits to college-age survivors of family breadwinners and for women who have spent many of their productive work years caring for children or elderly parents, without pay.

“Whatever Biden wants to do with Social Security, both in the long term and the short term and the long term, is reflected in the commissioner,” says Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. In other words, Biden will need his own people running Social Security to achieve any progressive outcomes.

Virtually since their appointments, Saul and Black have been viewed as hostile to Social Security’s goals, its 64 million beneficiaries and its 60,000 employees. By most accounts, they lived down to these expectations.

They’ve taken steps to politicize Social Security disability and place new burdens on its beneficiaries. They canceled the agency’s successful telework initiative, which facilitated working from home — in the teeth of the pandemic.

They’ve undercut the staff’s unions in numerous ways — allegedly flouting contractual rights, discriminating against employees for protected union activities and denying unions information they have a right to receive.

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In the words of Melissa McIntosh, president of the union representing the agency’s administrative law judges, who preside over appeals of disability claim denials, Saul and Black “have engaged in no-holds-barred union busting.”

McIntosh added, in a webcast sponsored by Social Security Works, “They pledged before Congress, under oath, that they would work with the unions and that they would comply with labor laws, and they have not.” Neither Saul nor Black responded to my request for comment, sent via the agency.

The pair’s most destructive instincts have been aimed at the disability program, which long has been a particular target of the Republican Party. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, unleashed an egregiously misleading attack on the program and its recipients during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in 2017.

Mulvaney said disability was Social Security’s fastest-growing program, which was a bald-faced lie. He also suggested that it didn’t deserve to be part of Social Security at all, a point he was welcome to take up with Congress, which enacted it in 1956. As I reported, throughout his mendacious diatribe the program’s moderator, John Dickerson, offered zero pushback.

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After Saul was appointed in 2019, Social Security proposed to jack up the frequency of medical reviews for many disability recipients from every three years to every two years, subjecting them to a complicated and burdensome process that advocates said served no purpose, since there was no evidence that the system was overlooking recipients ready to return to the workforce. The proposal was withdrawn by the Biden administration on Jan. 22.

Last year, Saul proposed to take some disability appeals out of the hands of the agency’s administrative law judges, who are immune from political pressure, and turn them over to its appeals judges, who are political appointees — and who have no experience actually conducting eligibility hearings.

This venture provoked congressional Democrats to inform Saul that the change was probably illegal, as well as pointless and detrimental to appellants’ legal rights.

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Saul has claimed in his public statements to be devoted to making the Social Security Administration more efficient, but in action he has done the opposite. In October 2019, he abolished the agency’s 6-year-old telework program, which allowed members of its 44,000-strong operational staff to work remotely; about 25% of the workers took advantage of the program. He gave the employees just two weeks to prepare to return to working at its headquarters outside Baltimore.

Thanks to telework, union officials say, productivity went up. “Instead of losing 30% of the incoming calls because people are tired of waiting, we are getting to 95% of the calls,” Ralph DeJuliis, head of the union representing the workers, said during the Social Security Works webcast. Telework “has been a tremendous boon for good public service.”

Saul explained that telework had been “implemented without necessary controls or data collection to evaluate effectiveness or impact on public service.”

In the broadest sense, Saul was hopelessly miscast as Social Security commissioner. The job demands an advocate deeply infused with Social Security’s mission and operations. Saul’s experience was as an executive at a couple of women’s garment firms and as a fundraiser for George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign.

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Saul also served on the board of the right-wing Manhattan Institute, which proposed aggressive cutbacks in Social Security benefits, arguing in part that the program unfairly transfers wealth “from the poor to the wealthy.” In fact, the exact opposite is true, which may explain why Republicans and conservatives detest it so.

Social Security has gone without even marginally effective formal leadership since 2013, when Republican Commissioner Michael Astrue stepped down. Barack Obama nominated the veteran Social Security official Carolyn W. Colvin to succeed him, but the Republican Senate refused even to schedule a vote on her appointment.

Feeling their progressive oats after a few years in the wilderness, House Democrats on Tuesday revived a proposal to increase and expand Social Security benefits while making the program more solvent for the foreseeable future.

“Every Senate-confirmed commissioner since 2001 has been a Republican,” Social Security Works observed in a transition memo for the Biden administration. The harvest has been grim.

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“Republican control at the top has brought ... harmful regulations, the closing of field offices, reductions in staffing ... anti-union animus, and other actions and attitudes that have degraded access, diminished service, and reduced confidence in the future of Social Security,” the memo said.

There’s some cloud over the legality of forcing Saul out of office, since he technically serves a six-year term. But that doubt was largely dispelled by a Supreme Court decision last year clearing the way for a president to fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent federal agency whose chief serves a five-year term.

Legal authorities say the decision could be applied to the Social Security Administration, also an independent agency. (There’s no legal obstacle to firing the deputy commissioner, David Black.)

There are positive signals coming from the White House. On Inauguration Day, Biden may have telegraphed his intention to fire Saul by listing him among federal officials who would be serving in an “acting” capacity until “permanent leadership” can be installed.

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Since Saul had been appointed and confirmed as commissioner by the Senate, he’s not an “acting” official. But Biden may have signaled that his days are numbered.

The same day, Saul announced two appointments to senior staff that heralded a new outlook at the agency: He named as his chief of staff Scott Frey, an Obama-era deputy commissioner, an official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and a member of Biden’s Social Security transition team; and as another deputy commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, a former fellow with the progressive Urban Institute. Both appointments won praise from the program’s advocates.

“Until there’s a change at the top, I believe that both of them will keep a watchful eye on Security Security operations, especially the disability issues.” Richtman told me.

The character of the Social Security board of trustees will inevitably change, as the secretaries of the treasury, health and human services, and labor sit on the board ex officio, along with the commissioner. That means that Trump’s indifferent Cabinet members will be supplanted by more experienced officials better attuned to the program’s needs.


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