President Joe Biden on Friday fired Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul, a Trump appointee who had drawn criticism from Democrats and advocacy groups for seeking to restrict benefits and taking a staunch anti-union stance in dealing with the labor groups that represent the agency’s 60,000 employees.
Saul, whose six-year term was set to end in January 2025, was reportedly fired after refusing to a White House request to resign. Deputy Commissioner David Black, also appointed by President Trump, resigned Friday upon request. Kiloko Kijakazi, the Biden-appointed deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy, will serve as acting head of the agency.
Biden’s move came a day after the Justice Department issued a memorandum opinion that said the president could legally remove the Social Security commissioner “at will” in light of recent Supreme Court decisions. Under the Social Security Act, a new president can fire the commissioner only for cause, but Biden last month quickly removed the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the regulator of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, after the Supreme Court ruled he could do so. The high court also ruled last year that restrictions on the removal of the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau were unconstitutional.
“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% 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,” a White House official told The Washington Post.
A target for Democrats, labor and advocacy groups: Democratic lawmakers, federal employee unions and advocacy groups for the elderly and disabled had long called for Saul and Black to be removed from their positions overseeing Social Security.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) in March called for Saul and Black to be fired, saying that they used their offices for “destabilize and actively harm” Social Security. Pascrell’s release at the time accused Saul and Black of “seeking to boot elderly and disabled Americans out of the program, blocking access to non-English speakers, removing due process protections for the disabled, and trying to union-bust SSA employees.”
Under the pair’s leadership, independent arbitrators had repeatedly ruled that the agency violated federal labor law in union negotiations. Unions also accused the agency of stalling implementation of a Biden order undoing a number of the Trump administration’s anti-union policies, Government Executive reports.
Democrats also blamed Saul and Black for delaying millions of stimulus payments this year as the IRS was left waiting for payment files from the Social Security Administration.
Pascrell and other Democrats cheered Friday’s firings. “Saul and Black acted as foxes in the henhouse,” he said in a statement, according to Politico. “Their agenda was not to protect Social Security but to impose cruelty on America’s seniors and disabled.” On Twitter, he added: “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Republicans warn of ‘dangerous politicization’: A number of Republicans slammed Biden’s move.
“This removal would be an unprecedented and dangerous politicization of the Social Security Administration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tweeted.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said in a statement that Saul and Black had both been confirmed by wide, bipartisan margins. “Saul and his team have admirably focused on service to beneficiaries, and steered the Social Security Administration through the pandemic with success,” he said. “Their terms didn’t expire until 2025, and there was no reasonable justification for these removals. President Biden is overtly politicizing the SSA. People don’t want their retirement and benefits politicized, they just want an agency that works. We had that under Commissioner Saul.”
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, also called it a partisan political move. “It is disappointing that the Administration is injecting politics into the agency, given that Commissioner Saul was confirmed with bipartisan approval, worked closely with both parties in Congress, and provided smooth benefit and service delivery during the largest management challenge ever faced by the agency,” they said in a joint statement. “We are concerned that this politicization of the Social Security Administration is just the beginning of efforts to raise payroll taxes and seriously undermines bipartisan efforts to save Social Security for future retirees.”
Saul called his firing a “Friday Night Massacre” in an interview with The Washington Post. The former commissioner — who attended the University of Pennsylvania with Trump, was a prominent Republican donor and had been a trustee at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank that has called for trimming some Social Security benefits — said he felt he was doing “an excellent job” and would fight his removal. "I consider myself the term-protected Commissioner of Social Security," he told the Post.
About the acting commissioner: Before joining the Social Security Administration, Kijakazi was a fellow at the Urban Institute; a program officer for the Ford Foundation; a senior policy analyst for the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; a program analyst for the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service; and a policy analyst for the National Urban League. She has a doctorate in public policy and CNN reports that she has led and participated in research regarding Social Security, racial equity, economic security and retirement security.