Biden ousts Trump-appointed Social Security chief after refusing to resign

WASHINGTON – President Biden on Friday sacked Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul, a holdover from the Trump administration that had alienated crucial Democratic constituencies with policies designed to restrict benefits and an uncompromising anti-union stance.

Saul was fired after refusing a resignation request, White House officials said. His deputy, David Black, who was the agency’s lead lawyer before his appointment by former President Donald Trump, resigned on Friday on request.

Biden has appointed Kilolo Kijakazi, the current deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy, to serve as interim commissioner until the White House identifies a permanent candidate to head the agency.

As the head of an independent agency whose leadership does not normally change with a new administration, Saul’s six-year term was to last until January 2025.

The White House said a recent Supreme Court ruling, followed by a Justice Department note on Thursday asserting the president’s authority to “remove the SSA commissioner at will,” gave the president the power to deal with the post like that of other traditional political appointments.

But Saul said in an interview on Friday afternoon that he would not quit his post, challenging the legality of the White House’s decision to oust him.

“I consider myself to be the term social security commissioner,” he said, adding that he planned to return to work on Monday morning, logging in remotely from his New York home. He called his ouster a “Friday night massacre.”

“This was the first time that I or my deputy knew this was going to happen,” Saul said of the email he received from the White House personnel office on Friday morning. “It was a lightning bolt that nobody expected. And right now, that leaves the agency in complete turmoil.

Saul’s sacking came after a tumultuous six-month tenure in the Biden administration in which advocates for the elderly and disabled, and Democrats on Capitol Hill, pressured the White House to fire him. He had clashed with unions representing his 60,000 employees, who said they had used anti-union tactics. Angry advocates say he hung around as millions of Americans with disabilities waited for him to turn the cases over to the Internal Revenue Service to release their stimulus checks – and accused him of a campaign too zealous to require people with disabilities to re-establish their eligibility for benefits.

“Since taking office, Commissioner Saul has undermined and politicized social security disability benefits, ended the agency’s telework policy which was used by up to 25% of the workforce. agency, has not repaired SSA’s relationship with affected federal employee unions, including in the context of COVID 19 workplace safety planning, reduced due process protections for court hearings ‘appeal for benefits and taken other actions that run counter to the agency’s mission and the president’s political agenda,’ a White House statement said.

The White House declined to comment on Saul’s threat not to give up his post. But federal personnel experts said the administration could prevent her from accessing the agency’s computer networks and cut her paycheck.

Saul, 74, a wealthy former womenswear executive and prominent Republican donor, who served on the board of a conservative think tank that called for cuts to Social Security benefits, had overseen one of the federal government’s largest operations since its 2019 Senate confirmation. The Social Security Administration pays more than $ 1,000 billion annually to approximately 64 million beneficiaries, including seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income Americans.

In the interview, Saul described himself as “very upset” by his sudden dismissal and cited two years of progress in modernizing the day-to-day operations of the agency under his watch, including the digitization of online payments, the replacement aging computer systems, improving years of sluggish customer service and overpowering a workforce he said abused a popular telecommuting pilot program before the coronavirus pandemic forced him to send employees home to work.

“There has been terrible abuse,” he said, adding, “I honestly think I’m doing a great job there. “

For their part, unions and advocates for the elderly and disabled have applauded the layoffs of Saul and Black. Under Trump, Saul – who attended the University of Pennsylvania with the former president – proposed what they called sweeping changes to make it harder for older and disabled workers to qualify for disability benefits and blocked access to help for non-English speakers. He also tried to increase the frequency of semi-annual medical examinations for people with disabilities receiving benefits, a proposal Biden blocked.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., DN.J., who chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, said in a statement that Saul and Black had “acted like foxes in the henhouse” with a program “to impose cruelty on the elderly and the disabled.

Saul said his goal was to stop fraud by people unduly claiming benefits. “It’s unfair to the people who deserve the benefits,” he said.

Unions representing administrative law judges who adjudicate disability benefit claims have been enraged by a policy instituted by Saul to transfer decisions from them to agency lawyers, claiming that this decision had eroded their judicial independence and threatened the protection of Americans with disabilities because agency lawyers were inclined to deny benefits. Saul said on Friday that no agency lawyer had ruled in the cases.

Administrative law judges and the union representing thousands of other agency workers clashed with Saul early in his tenure for forcing contracts whose terms had not been fully negotiated through collective bargaining. Tension continued in the Biden administration.

Critics also took issue with the fact that Saul never moved near the Baltimore suburb where the agency is based. Saul said on Friday he had stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington from his confirmation in 2019 until March 2020, when the pandemic forced the agency to switch to remote work. He said he personally covered the hotel costs.

As news of Saul’s possible sacking spread, Republicans in Congress accused the administration on Friday of politicizing the Social Security Administration and noted that Saul was confirmed by the Senate in 2019 by a wide margin.

“This removal would be an unprecedented and dangerous politicization of the Social Security Administration,” tweeted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The Social Security Administration, which began in 1935, was later merged with Health and Social Services, but regained its status as an independent agency in the mid-1990s to isolate it from politics, with a six-year term as commissioner designed to overlap with White House administrations. . Under the Social Security Act, an incoming president can only dismiss the commissioner for just cause.

However, the Supreme Court recently issued two rulings that have strengthened executive power when it comes to independent agencies run by one person.

Last year, the court ruled that a law protecting the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from presidential oversight violated the separation of powers, leading Biden to remove the person Trump appointed on his first day in office. The court issued a similar ruling in late June, ruling that the president had the power to dismiss the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Biden replaced the agency chief appointed by Trump on the same day.

The June decision raised the prospect that the head of the Social Security Administration would be next.

“SSA has one head with just cause protection,” Judge Elena Kagan wrote in a notice, “So a bettor could bet the agency’s dismissal provision is next on the chopping block. “

Saul said the court ruled only on the president’s power to remove the head of the housing agency.

After Biden’s inauguration, Saul changed course somewhat to align his actions with the priorities of the new president. He raised awareness among vulnerable populations to help them access benefits after the drop in demands during the coronavirus pandemic and agreed to renegotiate contracts with unions.

But his continued tenure alarmed many Democrats, who noted that Trump’s retention was able to leave its mark on one of the government’s largest agencies. Biden pledged during his campaign to increase benefits for Social Security recipients to at least 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

“President Biden needs someone who can keep his promise to protect and strengthen Social Security,” Representative John B. Larson (D-Conn.), Chairman of the Social Security subcommittee said Thursday. of the House Ways and Means Committee. “This is the largest insurance benefit in the country. “

Saul declined to say if he was considering legal action against the Biden administration, but added: “I intend to protect my rights.”

Amy B Wang and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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