Eight years before Martin O’Malley was tapped to manage Social Security, he was running for president and claiming to be the only candidate with a plan to fix it.
The vision, the former Maryland governor said, was not just to address the long-term outlook for a program expected to be incapable of paying full benefits by the mid-2030s, but to expand the benefits while raising wages and inspiring more private investment in retirement.
“Governor O’Malley will expand Social Security benefits — not reduce them or undermine Social Security in any other way,” read a four-page plan his campaign released in the summer of 2015.
Now, nearly a decade after a distant third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses ended his presidential hopes, Social Security is even closer to crisis — and O’Malley has been nominated by Democratic President Joe Biden to lead the agency that runs it.
SSA, based in Woodlawn in Baltimore County, pays benefits to roughly 70 million people and is financed by payroll taxes. But expenses have exceeded revenues, and the trust fund that’s used to fill the gap will be unable to pay full benefits in about 10 years, according to an annual report released in March.
As Democratic governor from 2007 to 2015 and Baltimore mayor for seven years before that, O’Malley has experience reducing benefits to preserve the long-term viability of a retirement system.
Reforms he ushered into law in 2011 included increasing state employee contributions and reducing cost-of-living raises to ensure the state’s pension system, chaired by the state treasurer and comptroller, would eliminate its unfunded liability over time. The system at the time of O’Malley’s reforms had $37.6 billion in assets and about 367,000 active or retired participants, according to its 2011 annual report.
The move was widely unpopular among employees and retirees, who protested by the thousands in Annapolis as officials debated the changes. Union representatives, the treasurer and comptroller also all spoke out three years later when O’Malley diverted some of the money saved by those reforms to fill other budget holes.
As a candidate on a bigger stage a few years later, O’Malley’s pitch went in a different direction.
His presidential campaign platform for Social Security focused on making the entitlement program pay out more to its beneficiaries, mainly through adjustments to laws dealing with taxes and wages.
Those are steps he wouldn’t have authority to take as head of the Social Security Administration. Still, the campaign-era proposal indicates O’Malley would bring a broad and progressive view to his advocacy for the program as its leader, experts say.
“To have an energetic advocate at the helm of Social Security would be lovely,” said Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “Something has to be done and it sounds like it would be good to have him in the room.”
Munnell, who reviewed O’Malley’s campaign plan, said she was pleased to see O’Malley had rejected the idea of privatizing Social Security or raising the retirement age, ideas that some policymakers have proposed to extend the program’s lifespan. She also highlighted his ideas — like raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and requiring employers with at least 10 employees to automatically enroll workers in an IRA — that would help retirement savings, although they are not under the purview of Social Security.
“It’s not necessarily a blueprint in how to restore financial balance to the system, which is going to be crucial, but fortunately his actuaries have a book that has probably a hundred policy options to solve the problem, so he will have access to a superb staff and be able to be a major contributor when the negotiations start,” Munnell said.
The top selling point of O’Malley’s plan was to make income above $250,000 subject to the payroll tax. Current law subjects only a certain amount of wages to the tax. In 2015, when O’Malley made his proposal, it was the first $118,500 earned; in 2023, it is $160,200.
His initiatives also included increasing a special minimum benefit for what the SSA calls “long-term low-wage-earners,” using a different measure of inflation to adjust benefits for retirees, and providing credits to caregivers who take extended time off work, like people who stay home with children or an aging parent.
“As a nation, we must do far more to ensure the retirement security of American families,” O’Malley wrote in an op-ed that ran in an Iowa newspaper in August 2015. “And we should start by expanding Social Security benefits — not cutting them or merely ‘enhancing them’ — to provide a foundation for a more secure retirement to all those who have worked hard to achieve it.”
The plan largely mirrored that of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who became the preferred progressive alternate to the eventual Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While Clinton held off on presenting a detailed Social Security plan in 2015, O’Malley’s campaign argued the Marylander was “the only candidate who set a goal to invest in retirement security for seniors.”
The U.S. Senate will vote on whether to confirm Biden’s nomination of O’Malley. The president sent his request July 26 to the Senate, which assigned it to the Finance Committee.
The AARP, the country’s largest advocacy organization for people 50 and older, does not comment on nominees for political office. But other nonprofit advocacy organizations pointed to O’Malley’s 2016 campaign platform as they hailed his nomination.
“As a presidential candidate in 2016, Governor O’Malley championed the expansion of Social Security,” read a statement from Max Richtman, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “He insisted that, ‘It is our responsibility to ensure that Americans who put in a lifetime of hard work are able to retire with the dignity they deserve.’”
Andrew Briggs, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said the benefit increases O’Malley advocated for in 2015 and 2016 “were sort of ‘off the shelf’ kinds of things — a lot of other progressives have advocated for them.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
Biggs, who previously worked at the Social Security Administration where he oversaw the agency’s policy research, said he expects Republicans at the confirmation hearing to ask O’Malley about his stances on raising taxes to boost benefits.
But for an agency that’s often viewed as apolitical, they might also focus on the fact that he’s a longtime, high-profile politician whose appointment could mean something of a shift, he said.
“He would be the highest-profile Social Security commissioner that I can think of,” Biggs said.
The agency itself, Biggs said, is typically focused on executing its primary tasks — getting benefit checks out the door and the day-to-day challenges of processing disability claims. Its leader is usually “not somebody who’s had bigger thoughts of what Social Security should look like in the future or how to address Social Security solvency,” Biggs said.
“He’s had those thoughts. He’s expressed them,” Biggs said. “I think they’re in line with the president’s, but I think this may point toward a more prominent role for the Social Security Administration in that policy area, but also a larger role for Social Security in general.”
O’Malley, in his only public comment since the announcement of his nomination, said in a tweet that he was “humbled and honored” to be nominated, and that “President Biden believes Social Security is a sacred promise.” The statement did not include specifics about how he would approach the position or if he still supports the ideas he presented eight years ago as a candidate for national office.
A White House spokesperson said O’Malley would not be available for an interview before his confirmation in the Senate. The spokesperson did not respond to further requests for comment about O’Malley’s campaign platform. A spokesperson for the Finance Committee said a hearing has not yet been scheduled.