Andrew Saul at his Senate confirmation hearing on Oct. 2, 2018, to be commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

Andrew Saul at his Senate confirmation hearing on Oct. 2, 2018, to be commissioner of the Social Security Administration. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Social Security Boss’ Job Status Unclear Following Inauguration

The White House named Commissioner Andrew Saul among its list of “acting” agency officials, despite the fact that he has five years remaining in his term.

The future of Andrew Saul as commissioner of the Social Security Administration was uncertain Thursday, after the Biden administration included his name on a list of “acting” agency officials and two key aides were replaced shortly after the new president’s inauguration.

Saul has been a controversial leader of the agency responsible for delivering checks to retired and disabled Americans because of his efforts to sideline federal employee unions and wrest control of disability hearings from the agency’s independent corps of administrative law judges. The Association of Administrative Law Judges last December issued a vote of no confidence in Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black, with 88% of its members in favor of the decision. The judges union joined with the American Federation of Government Employees and retirement and disability advocates earlier this month in urging President Biden to fire the two officials.

But Saul and Black both hold term appointments which do not expire until 2025, meaning Biden must show good cause to remove them now. The White House has not announced its plans for the agency, but a confluence of events Wednesday have fueled speculation that Saul’s days atop the Social Security Administration may be numbered.

First, in the hours immediately after Biden was sworn into office, the White House released a list of “acting agency leaders” to serve as caretakers “while Cabinet nominees continue moving through the confirmation process.” Although most of those included in the document were career employees, the list also included Saul’s name to lead the Social Security Administration.

Additionally, Saul sent a memo to senior agency staff Wednesday afternoon announcing the appointment of Scott Frey, a former deputy commissioner for legislation and congressional affairs in the Obama administration and most recently an aide to the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to be his chief of staff. Frey also was a member of Biden’s transition team deployed to the agency.

The memo also noted the departure of Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy Mark Warshawsky, a veteran of conservative think tanks like the Mercatus Center and the American Enterprise Institute. Replacing Warshawsky will be Kilolo Kijakazi, who most recently was a fellow with the liberal leaning Urban Institute.

The White House and Social Security Administration did not respond to requests for comment or clarification about Saul’s job status.

Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said she is relatively in the dark regarding the new administration’s plans for the agency’s top jobs. She pointed out that, by contrast, Biden fired National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Peter Robb Wednesday night after he refused to resign before the end of his term.

“It’s hard to know what to make of it, especially when you consider the White House memo that came out yesterday,” she said. “I don’t know what to think of it, and I have no info about it. I have noted that the general counsel of the NLRB was very anti-union, as Saul and Black have been, and his resignation was sought, he refused and then was fired. The [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] director was requested to resign and did so. So I’m seeing a lot of movement, but here at SSA, it’s hard to read the tea leaves.”

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215, said the last 24 hours have caused a lot of speculation within the agency. He said he hopes that the staffing changes that have taken place so far portend a positive shift in how management deals with labor groups.

“Mr. Frey was very engaged with AFGE during the presidential transition process,” Couture said. “He took a keen interest in our issues and our concerns, particularly the sorry state of labor-management relations at SSA, the lack of trust in any relationship with management, and our desire to turn a corner and rebuild a relationship with the agency and restore union and employee rights at SSA. The fact that he was installed so quickly after the inauguration I take as a positive sign that the administration wants SSA to reverse course and wants to build a positive relationship and partnership with AFGE.”

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