Biden Fires ‘Independent’ Social Security Administrator
President Trump's destruction of longstanding norms continues under his successor.
WaPo (“Biden fires head of Social Security Administration, a Trump holdover who drew the ire of Democrats“):
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.
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.
NYT (“Biden Fires Trump Appointee as Head of Social Security Administration“) adds:
The firing was the latest bid by Mr. Biden to oust a Trump-appointed director of an independent executive agency. Such agency chiefs are appointed to fixed terms, and have historically enjoyed a high degree of insulation from political dismissals, but recently that deference has eroded.
In June, Mr. Biden removed the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, after the court ruled that he had that authority.
Democrats have sought to oust Mr. Saul from his position since the early days of Mr. Biden’s administration.
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Social Security subcommittee, called for Mr. Saul’s resignation in February. Mr. Brown said Mr. Saul had sought to issue regulations meant to reduce access to Social Security disability benefits — including denying benefits to an estimated 100,000 potential recipients who do not speak English fluently. “Social Security is the bedrock of our middle class that Americans earn and count on, and they need a Social Security commissioner who will honor that promise to seniors, survivors and people with disabilities now and for decades to come,” Mr. Brown said on Friday. “Instead, Andrew Saul tried to systematically dismantle Social Security as we know it from within.”
The Democratic chairman of the Finance Committee, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, also welcomed the move. “Every president should choose the personnel that will best carry out their vision for the country,” Mr. Wyden said. “To fulfill President Biden’s bold vision for improving and expanding Social Security, he needs his people in charge. I will work closely with the president to confirm a new commissioner as swiftly as possible to lead this critical agency.”
Saul sounds like an asshole who should never have been appointed to the job—a classic case of an appointee opposed to the very existence of the agency over which he has charge, with a mission to undermine it. And I tend to agree with Wyden that Presidents, who are the only people elected to serve the interests of the whole country, should be able to fire officials who are obstructing the vision they ran on.
That said, independent regulatory agencies are supposed to be different. From the above-linked WaPo report:
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.
But, as alluded to earlier, SCOTUS may have opened the window here. WaPo again:
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.
Here, though, I side with the dissenters. From the WaPo report on the CFPB case:
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court’s liberals, said Congress should have the flexibility to impose limits on the president’s power to get rid of agency heads. She faulted the majority for second-guessing Congress, which created the agency to “address financial practices that had brought on a devastating recession, and could do so again.”
“Today’s decision wipes out a feature of that agency its creators thought fundamental to its mission — a measure of independence from political pressure,” Kagan wrote in her dissent.
But the Court reiterated the view just last month when Biden fired the Trump-appointed Federal Housing Finance Agency director:
“But as we explained last Term, the Constitution prohibits even ‘modest restrictions’ on the President’s power to remove the head of an agency with a single top officer,” wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
It’s bizarre, indeed, that Congress may delegate its Article I powers to the Executive—which is necessary simply because of the sheer scope and complexity of administering said powers—and yet not impose reasonable restrictions on how they’re administered. It strikes me as perfectly reasonable for Congress to decide that something like the Director of the FBI, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the SSA Administrator, and others should serve fixed terms to ensure both independence and continuity.
Regardless, given these precedents, Biden will surely get away with this firing. And Congress’ power to check the President is yet further eroded.