On Wednesday, March 24, House Democrats Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ), Richard Neal (D-MA), John Larson (D-CT), and Danny Davis (D-IL), members of the Ways and Means Committee, sent a letter to Social Security Administration commissioner Andrew Saul, complete with an ultimatum. According to the letter, nearly 30 million Social Security and Supplemental Security Income recipients, some of the country’s poorest and neediest people, were being prevented from receiving their $1,400 stimulus checks from the American Rescue Plan, because Saul was refusing to send the necessary payment files to the IRS.
Weeks after the American Rescue Plan had been signed into law, while many Americans had already received payments, the Social Security Administration’s inaction was standing in the way of millions of beneficiaries receiving desperately needed cash aid. After escalating pressure on Saul to no avail, the letter gave him 24 hours to remedy the holdup. A few hours later, the SSA announced that they’d be sending the information the next day.
This delay is just the latest in an array of extremely troubling decisions under the leadership of the Social Security Administration’s commissioner Saul, and his deputy David Black. The SSA manages benefits for the 61 million Americans who receive Social Security payments, along with the five million additional people who get disability benefits via the Supplemental Security Income program. The SSA also helps determine Medicare eligibility. It manages a trillion-dollar annual budget.
Commissioner Saul and Deputy Commissioner Black were appointed by President Trump, alongside Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy Mark Warshawsky, to self-fulfill the Republican promise about the failure of government, and destroy the departments they were tasked with managing. Warshawsky, a veteran of the American Enterprise Institute, was pegged as an early candidate to be fired by the Biden administration for his work undercutting the program; he retired from the post in late January.
The Biden administration has set to work rolling back some of those Trump appointees’ designs on Social Security, including a proposed rule that would have subjected disability insurance recipients to even more frequent and stringent eligibility reviews, which would make an already challenging process even more difficult for people with disabilities to secure and maintain cash benefits. That move was widely celebrated among advocates. But President Biden has not heeded the call from those same advocates to fire Saul and Black, who have clear track records of working against the very department they’ve been tasked to head up, and against Democratic ambitions on Social Security.
Now, a growing number of congressional Democrats are joining the chorus calling for Saul and Black’s ousters. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) called for their resignation as his first act as chair of the Social Security and Pensions Subcommittee, and has since urged Biden to fire them. He’s joined House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John Larson, Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny Davis, and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Bill Pascrell Jr. in demanding Saul’s immediate removal. Both Saul and Black are serving terms that don’t expire until 2025.
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On the campaign trail, Biden insisted (straining against historical fact) he had never and would never vouch for cuts to Social Security. He, and the Democratic Party broadly, have made protecting and expanding Social Security a main plank of the party’s policy platform going forward.
That ambition is irreconcilable with a leadership regime that has, as was reported by Yahoo News, put “illegitimate political pressure on Administrative Law Judges to reduce the rate of Social Security disability case approval,” as one such judge recently claimed. That alone should be scandal enough to imperil Saul and Black’s positions at the agency, and give the Biden administration the space to fire them for cause. But the Trump years have built up a tolerance for scandal, which means that the incident hasn’t even deterred them.
Meanwhile, Saul and Black have openly pursued a number of reforms aimed at aggressively curtailing benefits. Their attempted rule change, which the Biden administration rolled back, was a Reagan-era reform that would have led to tens of thousands of people losing benefits. When President Reagan enacted it, it led to a rash of suicides, and was deemed so cruel that it led to a unanimous Senate ruling to overturn it. Elsewhere, they’ve sought to deny benefits for older and severely disabled non–English speakers, resulting in an estimated 100,000 people being denied more than $5 billion in benefits.
While the president has pledged a return to normalcy, he’s been shy to root out all of the influences of Trumpism in Washington to the full extent of his power.
Biden has resisted calls to fire Trump’s exceedingly unpopular postmaster general Louis DeJoy, through the conduit of firing the board of governors who hired him for the job. There has been no shortage of articles (here, here, here, here), petitions, or support within Congress for DeJoy’s ouster. But despite on-time deliveries plummeting and a plan to raise rates, cut back service, and otherwise kneecap one of the most popular government agencies in the country, Biden has shown little disposition toward doing so. He did nominate three Democrats to vacant Board of Governors seats to give his party a majority on the board, presumably giving them the power to fire DeJoy. But the two Democratic holdovers on the board, Ron Bloom and Donald Moak, seem to like DeJoy quite a lot. With the board backing DeJoy, and tepid support for his ten-year plan from unions like the National Association of Letter Carriers and the American Postal Workers Union, Biden can’t realistically overrule them all without picking a major fight.
The same cannot be said of Saul and Black, who do not enjoy the fond feelings of their staff and co-workers. In December, the Association of Administrative Law Judges issued a vote of no confidence in both of them, with 88 percent of its members in favor. The American Federation of Government Employees, a union that does not frequently align itself with the AALJ, also called on President Biden to fire the two officials, saying that Saul and Black were effectively sabotaging the department, working to “undermine the agency’s mission” by allegedly putting employees up to major ethics violations in the name of denying injured workers and veterans their rightful benefits, and obstructing the smooth operation of the administration. Saul and Black have feuded with their workforce repeatedly, busting up union efforts and torpedoing morale.
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With such uniform opposition from Social Security advocacy groups, Democrats at various levels of government, and even bureaucrats within the SSA, it may be impossible for President Biden to present a credible case for keeping Saul and Black on much longer. While the president has pledged a return to normalcy, and an extrication of Trump’s legacy on government, he’s been shy to root out all of the influences of Trumpism in Washington to the full extent of his power.
But that timidity is going to come up against his, and Democrats’, broader ambitions. While few expect that Social Security expansion will come up in this legislative session, there is a nontrivial possibility it will be on the floor before Biden’s re-election campaign in 2024. At that point, Biden will have either overseen an SSA that has continued its Trumpist charge to chip away at one of the most popular government programs, or he’ll usher in a new era of expanded benefits, in line with the sizable welfare expansion he made a cornerstone of the American Rescue Plan, his first major piece of legislation. Both cannot plausibly be true.