Biden fires head of Social Security Administration, a Trump holdover who drew the ire of Democrats - The Washington Post
Category: News & PoliticsVia: jbb • 3 weeks ago • 3 comments
By: Washington Post
President Biden on Friday fired Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul, a holdover from the Trump administration who had alienated crucial Democratic constituencies with policies designed to clamp down benefits and an uncompromising anti-union stance.
Saul was fired after refusing a request to resign, White House officials said. His deputy, David Black, who was also appointed by former president Donald Trump, resigned Friday upon request.
Biden named Kilolo Kijakazi, the current deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy, to serve as acting commissioner until a permanent nominee is selected.
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But Saul said in an interview Friday afternoon that he would not leave his post, challenging the legality of the White House move to oust him. As the head of an independent agency whose leadership does not normally change with a new administration, Saul's six-year term was supposed to last until January 2025. The White House said a recent Supreme Court ruling gives the president power to replace him.
Saul disputed that. "I consider myself the term-protected Commissioner of Social Security," he said, adding that he plans to be back at work on Monday morning, signing in remotely from his New York home. He called his ouster a "Friday Night Massacre."
"This was the first I or my deputy knew this was coming," Saul said of the email he received from the White House Personnel Office Friday morning. "It was a bolt of lightning no one expected. And right now it's left the agency in complete turmoil."
Saul's firing came after a tumultuous six-month tenure in the Biden administration during which advocates for the elderly and the disabled, and Democrats on Capitol Hill pressured the White House to dismiss him. He had clashed with labor unions that represent his 60,000 employees, who said he used union-busting tactics. Angry advocates say he dawdled while millions of disabled Americans waited for him to turn over files to the Internal Revenue Service to release their stimulus checks — and accused him of an overzealous campaign to make disabled people reestablish their eligibility for benefits.
"Since taking office, Commissioner Saul has undermined and politicized Social Security disability benefits, terminated the agency's telework policy that was utilized by up to 25 percent of the agency's workforce, not repaired SSA's relationships with relevant Federal employee unions including in the context of COVID-19 workplace safety planning, reduced due process protections for benefits appeals hearings, and taken other actions that run contrary to the mission of the agency and the President's policy agenda," the White House said in a statement.
Saul, 74, a wealthy, former women's apparel executive and prominent Republican donor — who served on the board of a conservative think tank that has called for cuts to Social Security benefits — had overseen one of the biggest operations in the federal government since his 2019 Senate confirmation. The Social Security Administration pays out more than $1 trillion a year to about 64 million beneficiaries, which include seniors, the disabled and low-income Americans.
In the interview, Saul described himself as "very upset" about his sudden dismissal and cited two years of progress modernizing the agency's day-to-day operations on his watch, including digitizing online payments, replacing old information technology systems and reining in a workforce that had abused telework before the pandemic force him to send employees home to work.
"There was terrible abuse," he said.
As word spread of Saul's possible dismissal, congressional Republicans on Friday accused the administration of politicizing the Social Security Administration and noted that Saul had been confirmed by the Senate by a wide margin.
"This removal would be an unprecedented and dangerous politicization of the Social Security Administration," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted.
The Social Security Administration, which began in 1935, was later folded into Health and Human Services but regained it status as an independent agency in the mid-1990s to insulate it from politics, with a commissioner's six-year term designed to straddle White House administrations. Under the Social Security Act, an incoming president can fire the commissioner only for cause.
However, the Supreme Court issued two rulings recently that strengthened executive power when it comes to independent agencies led by a single appointee.
Last year, the court ruled that a law protecting the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from presidential supervision violated the separation of powers, leading Biden to remove Trump's appointee his first day in office. The court issued a similar decision in late June, ruling that the president has the authority to remove the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Biden replaced the Trump-appointed agency head on that same day.
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The June decision raised the prospect that the head of the Social Security Administration would be next.
"The SSA has a single head with for-cause removal protection," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in an opinion, "so a betting person might wager that the agency's removal provision is next on the chopping block."
After Biden was inaugurated, Saul shifted course somewhat to align his actions with the new president's priorities. He boosted outreach to vulnerable populations to help them access benefits after applications plunged during the coronavirus pandemic and agreed to renegotiate contracts with the unions.
But his continued tenure alarmed many Democrats, who noted that the Trump holdover was in a position to put his imprint on one of the government's biggest agencies.
"President Biden needs someone who can fulfill his promise of protecting and strengthening Social Security," Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's Social Security subcommittee, said in an interview Thursday. "Here's the nation's most important insurance benefit."
Alice Crites contributed to this report.