Patrick Semansky / AP file photo

House Spending Bill Pushes Social Security to Reverse Trump-era Workforce Changes

Language accompanying the bill orders a report by the end of 2021 on telework, and urges the agency to reverse actions that undercut the independence of administrative law judges.

House lawmakers are poised to push the Social Security Administration to roll back some its most controversial workforce policies implemented during the Trump administration, particularly those pertaining to telework and its corps of administrative law judges.

The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted 33-25 to advance the fiscal 2022 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill to the House floor. The bill also includes administrative funding for the Social Security Administration.

In a committee report accompanying the legislation, which would boost the agency’s budget from $11.2 billion this year to $12.2 billion in fiscal 2022, the panel demanded a report within 90 days—if the bill is passed on time, by the end of this year—on jobs where telework was revoked from employees. In October 2019, the agency stripped around 12,000 employees of their ability to work remotely, only to have to temporarily restore that eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More employees also saw cuts to telework in January 2020.

“The committee reiterates its support for well-managed telework programs in the federal workplace, which have demonstrated benefits for human capital as well as continuity of operations,” the report stated. “The committee expects SSA to implement telework policies that support these goals while also strengthening service to the American public, including in-person service in community-based field offices. The committee directs SSA to submit a report within 90 days of enactment of this act detailing the agency’s telework policies and identifying any positions for which telework has not been provided or has been reduced from pre-October 2019 levels, along with the reasons for any telework reductions.”

The committee also reiterated it expects the agency to reopen for in-person hearings for claimants “once the COVID-19 pandemic ends.”

Lawmakers also took aim at then-Commissioner Andrew Saul and then-Deputy Commissioner David Black’s initiatives to take some disability claims cases out of the hands of administrative law judges and put them into the hands of appeals judges and attorneys. President Biden removed Saul and Black from their posts last week following months of pressure from federal employee unions and advocacy groups and legal opinions that allowed the move.

The report called regulations issued last December expanding appeals judges and the agency’s appeals council to hear disability cases “an unjustified erosion of due process” for claimants and “strongly urged” the agency not to make use of the new regulations. And it criticized a Trump-era executive order exempting administrative law judges from the competitive hiring process.

“The committee continues to be deeply concerned about the impact of [the 2018] executive order on the judicial independence of administrative law judges,” the committee wrote. “The order eliminates the competitive hiring process for ALJs and has the potential impact of converting independent adjudicators to political appointees, undermining longstanding principles of fair and unbiased consideration of matters of vital importance to the American people. ALJs must be independent decision-makers and it is the committee’s expectation that SSA maintain the highest standards for appointment of ALJs.”

The bill now heads to the floor for consideration by the full House.

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