Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was confirmed as the first permanent commissioner of the Social Security Administration since 2021 in a Senate vote Monday.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was confirmed as the first permanent commissioner of the Social Security Administration since 2021 in a Senate vote Monday. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Martin O’Malley confirmed as Social Security commissioner

The Senate voted 50-11 Monday to confirm the former Maryland governor, officially ending a multi-year period where the agency struggled under acting leadership.

The Senate on Monday voted 50-11 to confirm former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as commissioner of the Social Security Administration, ending a drought of more than two years in which the embattled agency lacked a permanent leader at the helm.

President Biden tapped O’Malley to lead the agency fully two years after he ousted Trump appointee Andrew Saul from the post in July 2021, following months of lobbying from disability advocates and unions representing SSA employees. Since then, Kilolo Kijakazi ran the agency on an acting basis.

Over the past several years, the Social Security Administration has struggled on several fronts, including long wait times both in person at field offices and over its customer service phone line as well as a backlog of pending disability determinations.

And years of chronic underfunding led the agency to hit a 25-year staffing low in 2023, all while the number of beneficiaries has steadily grown. As a result, the agency’s workforce suffers from high workloads and low morale. Although the agency was able to engage in surge hiring using new funding in fiscal 2023 appropriations legislation, attrition remains high. And flat funding provided as part of a short-term continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown forced the agency to pause the initiative and institute a hiring freeze.

Throughout the nomination process, O’Malley and his supporters touted his work both as governor and as mayor of Baltimore modernizing large organizations and using statistical modeling programs to monitor and reform government services.

“What Social Security has need of is a common operating platform that allows everyone to see what’s happening in the organization,” he said at his confirmation hearing last month. “Right now, if you look at the org chart, it is massive and extremely siloed. The key to collaboration and improving service and efficiency, as well as staying on budget, is to break ourselves out of 240 years of tradition that says, ‘That’s my data, that’s my budget’ or that information is to be hoarded, and instead realize you need to share information openly and transparently. We need to measure performance, understand what’s happening where, whether we’re on track or not, and who’s doing it well and who is not.”

And though some Republicans withheld their support for his nomination at the Senate Finance Committee, citing frustration with Biden’s decision to oust Saul two years prior, three broke ranks, citing “rave” reviews from Republican officials who had worked with O’Malley during his time as governor, and supported his bid.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said O’Malley would keep two constituencies at the heart of his decision-making at the agency.

“He’s going to have two sets of people in mind as commissioner,” he said. “One will be that individual who depends on receiving their benefits each month. He’s going to be laser-focused on making sure that person doesn’t have to wait on a call [with the agency] for minutes or tens of minutes, as it is now, and make sure things are done in a timely way. But the second group he will be equally focused on is the workforce of SSA. They’ve been asked to do more with less over time, and Gov. O’Malley knows how to bring out the strength of a workforce, supporting the workforce in their mission and rewarding the good service they perform. So I think we’ll have a leader at SSA who will understand the agency’s responsibility to recipients as well as those performing public service.”