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.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Joe Biden, Law and the Courts, Presidency, Supreme Court, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Barry says:

    James, the only norm being violated here is a Democrat playing hardball.

    19
  2. MarkedMan says:

    I agree with James on this. The damage that this Supreme Court is doing will last generations

    9
  3. wr says:

    Well, let’s all thank Trump for giving Biden the power to root out all the traitors and saboteurs he installed in our government to help destroy the country. Think of it as the scouring of the Shire for modern times.

    11
  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    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.

    Just another Republican.

    Regardless, given these precedents, Biden will surely get away with this firing. And Congress’ power to check the President is yet further eroded.

    This is true, but as long as Republican presidents will push their powers to the max, for Biden not to do otherwise is just unilateral disarmament. I’d like to think this fact would incentivize Congressional Republicans to reassert their article 1 powers but they only seem to be interested in kabuki theatre. It’s less stressful then doing their jobs.

    10
  5. James Joyner says:

    @Barry: The longstanding norm was that independent agency heads aren’t fired unless for cause. Trump violated that and SCOTUS greenlighted it. Biden is now following suit. Admittedly, this is at least partly to undo damage caused by Trump. But the norm is now toast and I think to our detriment.

    5
  6. Moosebreath says:

    James,

    “President Trump’s destruction of longstanding norms continues under his successor.”

    If the Supreme Court says that it’s unconstitutional, it isn’t much of a norm. And if so, then there is nothing wrong with what Biden did. A framing like this, or saying Biden is “getting away with this firing” does quite a lot of damage, by implying that there should be a different set of rules for presidents of different parties.

    9
  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Dawgdamn, edit fail above, should read

    for Biden to do otherwise is just unilateral disarmament.

    3
  8. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: It wasn’t a norm, it was the law. Then the Court conservatives ruled that it wan’t the law. So Biden is just following the law. If there are villains in this story they’re Trump and SCOTUS. I’m just surprised Alito et al respected their own precedent and didn’t rule that the unitary executive only applies to Republican administrations.

    13
  9. Chip Daniels says:

    Norms are produced from an environment of trust and cooperation from both sides.
    What we have now in America is one party that has spiraled down into madness and is entirely indifferent to actual governance.

    I agree that the previous norm was useful but only when it was within the environment that produced it. We have to safeguard our democracy from the madness and only then can we build new norms.

    6
  10. DaveD says:

    In a functioning government a group of congressional members should pass a bill overwhelmingly spelling out when members of independent agencies can and cannot be terminated pursuant to their article 1 powers. At some point the separation of powers became window dressing. Republicans break norms with the might of the Supreme Court rubber stamping it and the democrats waiting til they gain power to use the new system they inherited. The only time in recent memory this system hasn’t been the norm was the recent repeal of the AUMF but that’s only because Republicans waited until a Democrat was in charge.

    1
  11. SKI says:

    Not to pile on but you saying that following the currently established rules isn’t “getting away” with anything.

    1
  12. James Joyner says:

    @DaveD:

    In a functioning government a group of congressional members should pass a bill overwhelmingly spelling out when members of independent agencies can and cannot be terminated pursuant to their article 1 powers.

    They did this, multiple times, and it was simply acknowledged as How Things Worked. Trump broke the law/norm and the Supreme Court backed him 5-4 and then backed Biden a few months later when he did the same thing. Given that it was a ConLaw, not statutory interpretation, ruling, the only recourse is for SCOTUS to revisit the precedent. Congress is powerless to remedy this.

    2
  13. Stormy Dragon says:

    I went back to see what was said here when this ruling was originally used to replace the head of the CFPB commissioner in 2020, and for some reason that wasn’t considered worthy of mention at all…

    3
  14. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I went back to see what was said here when this ruling was originally used to replace the head of the CFPB commissioner in 2020, and for some reason that wasn’t considered worthy of mention at all…

    The reason is that (1) this is something that I do in my spare time rather than a full-time focus and (2) there are only so many things I can comment on. On June 29-30 last year, when this was in the news, we were in the throes of a COVID lockdown and this ruling was overshadowed by a bigger ruling that same day, both of which absorbed my limited bandwidth. Biden’s move, by contrast, came during a relatively slow news period and on a Friday afternoon. (I missed the follow-up ruling last month as well. I’m not sure how much news coverage it generated but it was certainly overshadowed by the NCAA amateurism ruling.)

    5
  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    The precedent was set in 1945. This is de-Nazification.

    7
  16. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Aside from the fact that Saul is Jewish, he seems to be a fairly mainstream figure who had served in senior posts in both NYC and US government prior to his appointment by Trump and was confirmed by the Senate 77–16. I get why Democrats are unhappy with his performance and why Biden would want to replace him but he’s hardly a Nazi.

    1
  17. CSK says:

    Saul says he’s not going to leave his post. He claims he’ll work remotely.

  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    He was appointed by a criminal and traitor. I don’t consider any Trump appointee legitimate. I don’t consider his SCOTUS appointments or his judges legitimate. Good God, the man tried to steal the election and is still trying to quite literally overthrow the United States Constitution, and you’re worried this is norm-busting?

    5
  19. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: No, he’s not a Nazi. But he is, as you say yourself, a Trump appointee who opposes the mission of his agency. He’s not a Nazi (as far as I know) but as a Trumpy Republican, he’s close enough for @Michael Reynolds: analogy to work. It doesn’t seem possible to reeducate them, but they should be removed from the government. Hopefully DeJoy follows Saul out the door soon.

    6
  20. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “The reason is that (1) this is something that I do in my spare time rather than a full-time focus and (2) there are only so many things I can comment on.”

    James, that is fair where you are concerned. How many Congressional Republicans spoke out against the firing of the head of the CFPB when it occurred? As far as I can see, zero.

    If elected officials are not willing to oppose an action when a member of their party does it, it was never a norm, in spite of what the inside-the-beltway press would have us believe.

    5
  21. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “The longstanding norm was that independent agency heads aren’t fired unless for cause. ”

    First, if he’s a Trump appointee, the assumption should be that there is cause.

    Second, your statement is false; there is no longstanding norm. It was destroyed under Trump/SCOTUS, as has been pointed out.

    4
  22. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Aside from the fact that Saul is Jewish…”

    There are loads of Jewish Nazis in the USA today, starting with Stephen ‘Heydrich’ Miller, and Ben ‘F*ck the Jews, just support Israel’ Shapiro.

    4
  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Okay I get having a limited attention, but then you should also recognize when people are trying to manipulate you on that basis. When this issue has been coming up repeatedly the last 12 months, and wasn’t getting a lot of news coverage, why is it suddenly getting sufficient coverage to attract your attention in this particular instance?

    1
  24. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    why is it suddenly getting sufficient coverage to attract your attention in this particular instance?

    Honestly, I think it’s a function of less competing news (it was really hard to break through the sheer clusterfuckery and criminality during the Trump years) and the fact that Social Security is a massively bigger agency. I got a news alert from WaPo yesterday afternoon and certainly didn’t for the other two instances.

  25. HarvardLaw92 says:

    To be exact, though, the Act doesn’t specify “for cause”. It specifies “only pursuant to a finding by the President of neglect of duty or malfeasance in office”. 42 U. S. 902(a)(3).

    It does not specify accountability to Congress with respect to the finding. Presuming Biden made such a finding, which seems a reasonable assumption, the law hasn’t been violated at all.

    4
  26. Gustopher says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I find Dr. Joyner’s claim that Congress cannot fix this hard to understand, even with directly quoting Alito laying down such a rule.

    Is Alito just getting ahead of the constitution as 1 of 9 interpreters, and stating something likely to get trimmed back on the right case, or is there some profound constitutional case here?

  27. gVOR08 says:

    I have no idea whether there was a WAPO alert or not, but it was pretty well covered when SCOTUS allowed Trump to fire the head of the CFPB even though that position was protected by act of Congress. I don’t bring this up as a criticism of you, James. You’re not required to cover the handful of stories out of thousands that I happen to find interesting. And as you note, it, like everything else, was obscured by the constant storm of flung poo under TFG. But no one in the MSM or the RW puke funnel should act surprised that Biden gets to fire Saul.

    We see constant warnings that if Ds kill the filibuster the next R Senate may take advantage of it. (Like the Rs won’t kill it anyway the minute it becomes inconvenient.) Well, the conservative Justices like the idea of dictatorship a unitary executive and now they have to live with Biden operating under the rules they set. And isn’t the real issue here the unitary executive? We’ve created the Imperial Presidency and we ought to be fixing that.

    1
  28. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Gustopher:

    They determined that Congress establishing a situation where a single individual exercises executive branch power, while attempting to limit the ability of the president to remove that individual, violates separation of powers. It permits Congress to empower someone not the president to effectively usurp executive power. I’m inclined to agree with that ruling. Article II is not unclear about the nature or boundaries of executive power. Barring a complete overhaul in the ideological composition of the court, it’s unlikely to be going anywhere.

    1
  29. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Gustopher:

    I will say that Congress can easily fix this – by converting the singular commissioner to a commission. If the goal of Congress is to ensure some degree of insulation from political dictats and a unitary executive, that does it nicely.

    3
  30. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @gVOR08:

    To be fair, though, Article II doesn’t vest the executive power in the executive branch. It vests it solely and exclusively in the president. It’s very clear on that point. One could infer that a unitary executive was precisely what the framers intended in light of that verbiage.

    Given their recent (at the time) disengagement from and distaste for a monarchy, it’s suggestive that they didn’t exactly intend to create an elected king, but they did write what they wrote.

    2
  31. Gustopher says:

    @HarvardLaw92: thanks. Makes sense now.

    1
  32. David S. says:

    I agree that, as a trend, this isn’t a good thing. It was a smart tactical move from Biden, though, presuming that he agrees: on one hand, Alito folds on the unitary executive philosophy; on the other hand, he gets rid of Saul. He wins either way. (And since Alito has no reason to fold, the outcome is even obvious: predictability is good.)

    If things are going to get worse, then you may as well leverage that into a silver lining. It’s not ideal, but I think it’s better than fruitlessly shouting into the wind that you’re very principled.

  33. Barry says:

    @HarvardLaw92: “. It permits Congress to empower someone not the president to effectively usurp executive power. ”

    Pure ‘unitary executive’ here.

  34. Barry says:

    @HarvardLaw92: “Given their recent (at the time) disengagement from and distaste for a monarchy, it’s suggestive that they didn’t exactly intend to create an elected king, but they did write what they wrote.”

    So what the Founders thought is irrelevant?

  35. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Barry:

    Article II says what it says, in clear terms. If you’re unhappy with the wording, there’s certainly a mechanism for changing it available to you.

  36. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Barry:

    No. They put those thoughts into written law by making presidential appointments subject to Senate approval, and gave themselves a mechanism for removing a president whose execution of the powers he’d been granted they found objectionable. As I said, not an elected king.

    These were not men prone to being unable to express their thoughts. Are we to presume that they erred, or merely that Barry is better informed to interpret the meaning of their words than they were because he doesn’t care for what they wrote?