Why Biden Fired the Head of Social Security

Why Biden Fired the Head of Social Security

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Plus, Democrats divided over size of major spending bill
Monday, July 12, 2021

Why Biden Fired the Social Security Commissioner

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.

Democrats Divided Over Size of Major Spending Bill

Democratic lawmakers plan to pass a massive spending package via the reconciliation process this year but still have to work out just how large that package will be.

In an interview with Maureen Dowd of The New York Times published Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said he wants the bill to be as large as $6 trillion — enough to “address concerns progressives have had for decades.”

Sanders also said he would not support a package worth $2 trillion or $3 trillion. “That’s much too low,” he told Dowd.

But Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, faces a tough battle ahead to convince allies to go that high. Other Democratic committee members have settled on $3.5 trillion as a topline number for the reconciliation package that will focus on “soft” infrastructure such as child care and energy efficiency, Hans Nichols of Axios reports, though that number could well shrink once centrists in the party such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) get involved.

Tax revenues are key: With Manchin saying that he wants all spending paid for, the size of the package is probably inseparable from the revenues the reconciliation bill can generate.

Democrats in the Senate are reportedly considering about $2.4 trillion in tax increases, as well as legislation that would lower drug prices, for an additional savings of $600 billion over 10 years. That could give Democrats as much as $3 trillion to play with, which is reportedly the size of the package being considered by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), though even that may be too large.

“They’re all trying to figure out what the bottom line is,” a source told The Hill. Schumer is “trying to figure out: ‘What can I get my caucus to support? What’s the revenue number?’ It’s not clear to me he can get $3 trillion."

Republicans will fight: If Democrats stick together, the reconciliation process would require no support from across the aisle. But that doesn’t mean that Republicans won’t fight the tax and spending measures by seeking Democratic defectors — a major risk in a Congress that is so closely divided.

“If you have 10 House [Democratic] members, you can stop anything,” anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist told The Hill. “No Republican in the House or Senate will vote for tax increases.”

Tough battle ahead: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week promised a “hell of a fight” over the reconciliation bill, and that battle now kicks into a higher gear with the Senate returning to town Monday.

For now, the White House is letting lawmakers work out the details. Asked about Biden administration’s view on the size of the reconciliation package, press secretary Jen Psaki was noncommittal Monday.

“I will say that, as it relates to the budget reconciliation process, that of course is for members of the Senate to work through what they can all collectively support together to get enough votes,” she told reporters. “We expect there to be some significant ups and downs but we are ready for it — we’re bracing for it,” she added.

Quote of the Day

“I don’t see that there’s any reason that Republicans would be opposed to dealing with infrastructure separately. That makes all the sense in the world, because we, for the most part, we support infrastructure. President Trump had a $2 trillion infrastructure package, but so did every president in recent history, including Republicans.

“It’s been decades since we’ve actually acted on those proposals. It’s time to do it. If anything, it takes something out of reconciliation that would otherwise be attractive to more moderate Democrats.”

– Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), in an interview with The New York Times, explaining his willingness to negotiate a bipartisan infrastructure package with Democratic senators and the Biden administration. Portman rejected the idea that Republican negotiators were opening a path for Democrats to move ahead with a broader reconciliation package, arguing that by taking some core elements out of that legislation, “it’s less likely that reconciliation will pass at the level that Democrats are talking about.”

Chart of the Day: A Mighty Spending Surge

The unprecedented fiscal response to the Covid-19 crisis will add about $5.2 trillion to the national debt, according to an analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget cited by Andrew Van Dam of The Washington Post Monday.

Van Dam provides some context for just how large that sum is: “During the pandemic, from February 2020 to May 2021, 7.6 million existing homes and condos were sold in the U.S. according to National Association of Realtors data. With $5.2 trillion, the U.S. government could have bought every single one of them. Twice. And the feds would still have had a bit left over to upgrade the furniture in the den.”

While economists generally agree that the spending surge worked, some charge that it was too big, risking inflation and waste. And it sets up the conditions for a possible rough patch as the spending comes to an end. “Without big changes, such as the passage of Biden’s ambitious infrastructure and families plans, the economy is set for a bit of a bumpy landing after the boom of 2021 and 2022, one that will likely come just as the 2024 presidential campaigns are shifting into gear,” Van Dam writes.

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