Biden Ousts Trump Holdovers from Social Security Administration
Removal of the agency’s leadership follows a Supreme Court decision finding that laws barring a president from firing political appointees without cause are unconstitutional.
The Biden administration on Friday fired Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black, following months of lobbying by advocacy groups and federal employee unions.
Kilolo Kijakazi, the agency’s deputy commissioner for the retirement and disability policy and a Biden appointee, will lead the agency on an acting basis. Kijakazi announced the ouster of Saul and Black, both holdovers from the Trump administration, in an email to Social Security employees Friday afternoon.
“I thank former Commissioner Saul and Deputy Commissioner Black for their service to the public,” Kijakazi wrote. “I am a strong believer in collaboration and Scott Frey and I look forward to working with all of you. This is a pivotal time for the agency and the nation and I know we can overcome any challenge when we confront it together.”
Federal employee unions and advocacy groups have advocated for Saul and Black’s ouster since before Biden was sworn into office, citing their frequent censure by independent arbitrators for illegal collective bargaining tactics. Unions also accused the agency leadership of dragging its feet on implementation of new Biden-era initiatives aimed at rolling back several of the Trump administration’s anti-union policies, specifically seeking to retain portions of Trump-era union contracts by negotiating narrowly targeted “sidebar” agreements.
But for six months, the White House declined to remove the two appointees, apparently due to the law that states that the Social Security commissioner can only be removed before the end of his or her term for cause.
Last month, the administration received a boon in the form of Collins v. Yellen, a Supreme Court decision that found that the law providing a similar “for cause” protection to the Federal Housing Finance Agency director unconstitutionally constrained the president’s ability to oversee political appointees. Following the decision, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel published a 17-page opinion on Friday finding that the Supreme Court decision also applies to the Social Security commissioner.
“In light of the court’s reasoning in Collins and Seila Law [challenging a similar removal protection at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau], we have reexamined the constitutional concerns that we previously raised about the SSA commissioner’s protection from removal when Congress enacted the provision in 1994,” the Justice Department wrote. “We believe that the best reading of those decisions compels the conclusion that the statutory restriction on removing the commissioner is unconstitutional. Therefore, the president may remove the commissioner at will.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Saul indicated he would fight his removal in court. “I consider myself the term-protected Commissioner of Social Security,” he said, adding that he plans to be back at work on Monday morning, signing in remotely from his New York home. He called his ouster a “Friday Night Massacre.”
Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, applauded Biden’s decision to remove Saul and Black, and said she hopes the White House will appoint a new leader who will spur more collaborative labor relations at an agency that has a long-held reputation for hostility toward organized labor.
“Those who were involved in aggressive union-busting should not lead a large federal agency,” she said. “We are hopeful we can reinitiate a productive labor-management relationship with SSA. It is absolutely fair to say SSA has always had a bad history with labor relations, and they were enthusiastic and empowered during the last anti-union administration. So we hope that with this new leadership, the relationship can be rebooted in the interest of public service.”
Ralph DeJuliis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, which represents Social Security field office employees, said the decision marked a "new day" at the agency.
"Andrew Saul and David Black spent nearly three years dragging down the quality of service the American people deserve," he said. "They have destroyed employee morale, mismanaged the distribution of key stimulus relief funds to millions of elderly and disabled beneficiaries, and led the charge to create an anti-employee, anti-union workplace. President Biden made the right call to send these Trump appointees packing and instead appoint someone who is dedicated to investing in Social Security. We are excited to begin a new era with acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi and look forward to building back a better SSA."