While the words “you’re fired” may have been a signature phrase for former President Trump dating back to his reality TV days, President Biden got to try them out last week when he ousted Trump-era appointee Andrew Saul as commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
The president asked Saul and David Black, the agency’s deputy commissioner, to resign last Friday. Black agreed to resign, but Saul refused. The administration then notified Saul he was fired. Saul vowed to fight Biden’s move as illegal, according to an interview with The Washington Post.
The Social Security Administration referred requests for comments on Saul’s removal to the White House. The White House did not respond.
As 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. But the White House said a recent Supreme Court ruling affirmed the president’s power to remove the SSA commissioner at will.
Biden appointed Kilolo Kijakazi, deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy, as the acting commission while the administration looks for permanent successors to Saul and Black.
Congressional Democratic leaders and advocates for the elderly and disabled, who had been lobbying for Saul’s removal since the early days of the Biden administration, cheered the firing as long overdue. Republican leaders cried foul and charged the administration with playing politics.
“Today is a great day for every current and future Social Security beneficiary,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, an advocacy organization.
“Andrew Saul and David Black were appointed by former President Donald Trump to undermine Social Security,” Lawson said in a statement released Monday. “That includes waging a war on people with disabilities, demoralizing the agency’s workforce and delaying President Biden’s stimulus checks.”
Rep. John Larson, a Democrat from Connecticut who chairs the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, agreed. “From the beginning of their tenure at the Social Security Administration, Andrew Saul and David Black were anti-beneficiary and anti-employee,” he said in a statement.
Larson, who called for Saul’s removal back in March, applauded Biden’s move, saying the president needs someone running the agency who “will work to fulfill his promise of protecting and enhancing Social Security.”
And that’s precisely what worries congressional Republicans.
Biden campaigned on increasing Social Security benefits for many Americans and shoring up the program’s finances, funded in part by boosting payroll taxes on workers who earn $400,000 or more.
“We are concerned that this politicization of the Social Security Administration is just the beginning of efforts to raise payroll taxes and seriously undermine the bipartisan efforts to save Social Security for future retirees,” House Ways and Means Committee Republican leader Kevin Brady of Texas and Senate Finance Committee ranking member Mike Crapo of Idaho said in a joint statement.
“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,” the senators said in the statement.
Shai Akabas, director of economic policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, called the political fallout resulting from Saul’s removal “unfortunate.” “Political gridlock was already holding up public trustee and advisory board vacancies. This move is now likely to further politicize the agency’s work.”
The political sparring will not affect the $1 trillion in benefits that Social Security sends to 65 million Americans each year, including retirees, disabled workers, their dependents and survivors. But it will likely make it more difficult to begin needed work on a bipartisan solution to resolve the program’s long-term financial challenges.
The latest official estimate from the Social Security Administration shows that unless Congress acts, just 79% of promised benefits will be payable in 2035, when the current trust fund reserves are depleted. And that estimate, released in April 2020, did not take into account the economic effects of the pandemic. There is no word when the long-delayed 2021 trustees report will be released to provide an updated look at the future of Social Security’s finances.
(Questions about Social Security rules? Find the answers in Mary Beth Franklin’s 2021 ebook at MaximizingSocialSecurityBenefits.com.)
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Andrew is half-human, half-gamer. He’s also a science fiction author writing for BleeBot.