In addition to Saul and Black, Social Security Works is urging President-elect Joe Biden, “on day one of his administration,” to jettison Deputy Commissioner Mark Warshawsky, whom the organization calls “the apparent mastermind behind an ongoing regulatory war on disability beneficiaries.”
Neither the agency nor Biden’s team responded to requests for comment.
Advocates object to several Trump administration moves, including more frequent eligibility reviews that likely will result in decreased disability payments. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia estimates that “hundreds of thousands of people will stop receiving disability benefits as a result of this new rule.”
The proposed regulation says eligibility should be determined at the “earliest point so that beneficiaries who have medically improved and are no longer disabled return to the workforce at the earliest point possible.”
Yet that same document says that “we believe that there may be positive employment effects as a result of these proposed rules, although we cannot currently quantify them.”
Pushing Saul from his job is easier proposed than accomplished, even if Biden agrees.
Saul is a New Yorker and was Trump’s University of Pennsylvania Wharton School classmate. Appointed SSA commissioner last year for a six-year term ending in 2025, he reports directly to the president.
Unlike lower-level appointees, the commissioner cannot simply be fired, according to a Social Security Works report submitted to Biden’s transition staff. Commissioners can be dumped only for neglect of duty or malfeasance.
“In the unlikely event that Saul refuses to resign,” the report adds, “the President should remove him nevertheless,” citing a Supreme Court decision as authority.
Advocates want him out because Biden’s policy options could be limited if Saul stays.
“We are also concerned that if Saul remains in place, the Biden administration will not be able to reverse or withdraw the newly finalized regulations, or even those that are still pending,” said Lawson. “Our understanding of the law is that doing so requires action by the commissioner.”
The organization’s report made a direct partisan appeal to Biden. “Republican control at the top has brought a number of lower-level appointees whom the Social Security community views as hostile to Social Security,” the document said. “It has also brought harmful regulations, the closing of field offices, reductions in staffing . . . anti-union animus, and other actions and attitudes that have degraded access, diminished service, and reduced confidence in the future of Social Security specifically and government more generally.”
Before a 1994 law giving SSA commissioners six-year terms, they were commonly replaced by incoming presidents, said Linda Benesch, communications director of Social Security Works. Senate Republicans refused to confirm President Barack Obama’s appointee, Carolyn W. Colvin.
“As a result, in only eight of the last 40 years has SSA had Senate-confirmed Democratic leadership,” Benesch said. “We think it’s time for Democrats to play hardball.”
Another change opposed by advocates and administrative law judges would allow expanded use of agency lawyers to consider appeals from people who think their eligibility was not properly determined.
“These attorney advisors, who the agency calls ‘appeals judges,’ will not have the independence nor experience that disability claimants count on right now,” said Melissa McIntosh, president of the judges association, an affiliate of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.
The judges also hear overpayment cases. McIntosh said unlike administrative law judges, the attorney advisers can receive annual bonuses from the agency, which could sacrifice their independence.
Council 220’s objections centered on telework for employees.
A union statement said its executive committee’s finding of “no confidence” in agency leaders is an “unprecedented act” resulting from “years of mismanagement and poor leadership.” Much of the statement focused on agency telecommuting policies since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic: “The vote is also an admonition of their handling of the remote work program, the lack of open communication with SSA employees amid a global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, and the absence of a clear vision for SSA.”
Ralph de Juliis, president of Council 220, part of the American Federation of Government Employees, said “it is essential that President-elect Biden not only removes SSA leadership, but clears the agency of all who were infected by Saul’s anti-employee bias.”
Working conditions that apply to employees, including Trump’s vigorous attacks on federal labor organizations generally, also can affect agency customers.
“Union busting and the demoralization of the SSA workforce is causing many employees to resign. This makes it difficult for SSA to provide beneficiaries with a high-quality level of service,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works. “The agency needs new leadership at the top who will work to strengthen the agency and make it a desirable place to work, instead of driving people away.”