President Joe Biden on Friday fired Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul after he refused to submit his resignation as the President had requested, a White House official told CNN.
Biden had asked for the top two officials at the Social Security Administration to submit their resignations, the White House official told CNN, but only Saul refused. Deputy Commissioner David Black agreed to submit his resignation, the official said, and it was accepted.
"Since taking office, Commissioner Saul has undermined and politicized Social Security disability benefits, terminated the agency's telework policy that was utilized by up to 25 percent of the agency's workforce, not repaired SSA's relationships with relevant Federal employee unions including in the context of COVID-19 workplace safety planning, reduced due process protections for benefits appeals hearings, and taken other actions that run contrary to the mission of the agency and the President's policy agenda," the White House official said.
The President has appointed Kilolo Kijakazi as acting commissioner while the search for a commissioner and deputy commissioner is conducted.
She is currently the deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy at the Social Security Administration. Prior to that position, she served as a fellow at the Urban Institute, a program officer for the Ford Foundation, and a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She holds a doctorate in public policy and has led and participated in research regarding Social Security, racial equity, economic security and retirement security.
The Washington Post was first to report on Saul's dismissal.
Joe Biden fires top official at Social Security Administration after he refuses to resign
Saul's six-year term was not set to expire until January 19, 2025.
The White House cited a Supreme Court ruling establishing the President's ability to remove..., according to the Post.
But in an interview with the Post on Friday, Saul said he does not intend to leave his role, questioning whether it was legal for the White House to have dismissed him from the position.
"I consider myself the term-protected Commissioner of Social Security,"he said.
Saul told the Post he first heard the news of his dismissal in an email Friday morning from the White House Office of Personnel, calling his dismissal a "Friday Night Massacre."
"This was the first I or my deputy knew this was coming," he told the newspaper. "It was a bolt of lightning no one expected. And right now it's left the agency in complete turmoil."
Biden's decision to oust Saul was met with dismay by Republican leaders in Washington.
"This removal would be an unprecedented and dangerous politicization of the Social Security Administration," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a Friday tweet before the news of Saul's firing broke.
"Social Security Commissioner Saul has bipartisan backing," Iowa's Sen. Chuck Grassley said earlier Friday, warning of politicizing the agency.
But on the other side of the aisle, Rep. Bill Pascrell said Friday that he welcomes the "overdue" removal of Saul and Black.
Pascrell -- a New Jersey Democrat who's the chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight -- had for months been calling for the duo to be fired to "protect Social Security" and wrote a letter to the President in March expressing that he wanted them out of the agency.
"The leadership of the Social Security Administration under these men has been marked by a stunning streak of disregard, callousness, and destruction of the agency," Pascrell said Friday in a statement. "Saul and Black acted as foxes in the henhouse. Their agenda was not to protect Social Security but to impose cruelty on America's seniors and disabled. Their removal is overdue and welcome."
"Once again, the President has moved with decisiveness to build a better nation. Social Security is in deep trouble. I look forward to the nomination of a new commissioner who will be a partner for the Biden administration and be dedicated to protecting this program, not dismantling it. It's a new day," Pascrell said.
Saul and Black are not the first Trump appointees to be removed by the Biden White House, nor is Saul the first to question the legal authority President Joe Biden holds in removing his predecessor's appointees.
Last winter, the Biden administration made an effort to remove multiple Trump appointees across various government agencies and boards.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in February dismissed hundreds of members across 42 advisory boards, including a number of last-minute Trump appointees such as former campaign manager Corey ... and David Bossie, Trump's deputy campaign manager.
White House removes top Social Security officials
Democrats and advocacy groups had criticized Trump-era holdovers
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the Democrat who leads the Senate Finance Committee’s Social Security subcommittee, applauded the move. Brown had called on Biden to replace Saul and Black in February.
“Social Security is the bedrock of our middle class that Americans earn and count on, and they need a Social Security Commissioner who will honor that promise to seniors, survivors, and people with disabilities now and for decades to come,” Brown said in a statement on Friday. “Instead,Andrew Saul tried to systematically dismantle Social Security as we know it from within. I look forward to working with incoming Acting Commissioner Kijakazi, who shares our commitment to protecting and expanding Social Security.”
The move drew objections on Friday from top-ranking Republicans on the panels that oversee Social Security, who described it as a politicization of the agency.
“It is disappointing that the Administration is injecting politics into the agency, given that Commissioner Saul was confirmed with bipartisan approval, worked closely with both parties in Congress, and provided smooth benefit and service delivery during the largest management challenge ever faced by the agency,” said Senate Finance Ranking Member Michael D. Crapo of Idaho and House Ways and Means Ranking Member Kevin Brady of Texas in a joint statement.
Saul and Black were each confirmed with broad bipartisan margins in 2019.
The vote to confirm Saul, on June 4, 2019, was 77-16. Democratic backers at the time included Brown, then-Finance ranking member Ron Wyden of Oregon and Charles E. Schumer of New York, the then-minority leader. Black was confirmed on Sept. 24, 2019, on a 68-26 vote. Wyden voted for Black but by then Brown and Schumer were "no" votes.
Saul, a businessman and former New York City transit official, didn't have any experience with Social Security before taking the job, though at one point he ran the federal government's Thrift Savings Plan for federal workers. Black was a former Social Security Administration general counsel under Democratic and Republican presidents — Barack Obama and George W. Bush, respectively — who joined the Trump transition team and then stayed on as a senior SSA adviser.
Under the law establishing Social Security, the agency's commissioner can only be removed before his or her six-year term is up "pursuant to a finding by the President of neglect of duty or malfeasance in office." That provision was added in 1994, though at the time the Clinton administration raised constitutional questions.
Biden's move to fire Saul came after a recent Supreme Court decision in Collins v. Yellen, in which the court decided a requirement that the Federal Housing Finance Agency director could only be fired for cause was unconstitutional.
The Justice Department said in a memo to the White House on Thursday that it believed the president could remove the Social Security commissioner without cause in light of the FHFA ruling and another, similar decision applicable to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director.
As a result of those high court rulings, the Justice memo said, the agency's attorneys had "reexamined" the 1994 law and now "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."
The Washington Post reported that Saul plans to contest the White House decision in court, and that he plans to report to his old job at Social Security on Monday — remotely.
For their part, unions and advocates for the elderly and disabled cheered Saul’s and Black’s firings. Under Trump, Saul — who attended the University of Pennsylvania with the former president — had proposed what they called radical changes to make it harder for older and disabled workers to be found eligible for disability benefits and blocked access to assistance for non-English speakers. He also tried to increase the frequency of medical reviews to semiannually for disabled people receiving benefits, a proposal Biden blocked.
Unions that represent administrative law judges who rule on disability benefits applications were infuriated by a policy Saul instituted to shift adjudications from them to agency attorneys, saying the move eroded their judicial independence and threatened protections for disabled Americans because agency attorneys would lean toward denying benefits. Saul said Friday that no agency attorneys had ruled in these cases.
The administrative law judges and union representing thousands of other agency workers clashed with Saul early in his tenure for imposing contracts whose provisions were not fully negotiated through collective bargaining. The tension continued into the Biden administration.
Critics also took issue with the fact that Saul never moved near suburban Baltimore, where the agency is based. Saul said Friday that he stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington from his confirmation in 2019 until March 2020, when the pandemic forced the agency to shift to remote work. He said he personally covered the hotel costs.