Three months after Donald Trump left office, unions and congressional Democrats say the man he left in charge of the vast Social Security system is making it harder for millions of Americans to get disability benefits and is undermining federal workers’ rights.
Andrew Saul, 74, one of the few remaining holdovers from the Republican president’s administration, told The Baltimore Sun through a spokesman that he intends to lead the Baltimore County-based Social Security Administration until his term ends in January 2025. He and his backers say the agency is becoming more efficient and modernizing rules that determine who qualifies for disability aid.
But his critics — including federal employee unions, House and Senate Democrats, and disability benefit advocates — are urging Saul to resign while pressuring Democratic President Joe Biden to fire him. They have accused Saul and deputy commissioner David Black of trying to make it more difficult to qualify for disability benefits, delaying distribution of economic stimulus checks to 30 million Americans and ignoring workers’ union rights.
“I think it would be best for him to resign,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees the Social Security Administration. “I think he really needs to consider that,” the Maryland Democrat said.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, also a Maryland Democrat, said Saul and Black should step down “to fully ensure workers’ rights and to restore confidence in SSA leadership.”
The Social Security Act says a commissioner “may be removed from office only pursuant to a finding by the president of neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.” The White House declined to comment.
Trump’s detractors say the former president’s policies should not be permitted to continue through Saul at a large agency overseeing benefits for 65 million Americans, including retirees, people with disabilities, widows and widowers. SSA says it dispenses more than $1 trillion in benefits a year. It employs roughly 11,000 people in Maryland, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Many are at SSA’s headquarters in Woodlawn, making SSA the largest employer in Baltimore County.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who chairs a subcommittee overseeing Social Security, has said Saul and Black remain “agents of the Trump Social Security agenda” bent on a “path of destruction.” Trump proposed cutting Social Security disability benefits several times during his four years, but Congress didn’t go along.
Saul, who attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School at the same time as Trump, isn’t the best-known holdover from Trump’s term. Louis DeJoy became postmaster general in 2020 after being selected by the Postal Service’s Board of Governors, which maintains authority to oust him. DeJoy, who has overseen mail delivery slowdowns, is like Saul exceedingly unpopular among congressional Democrats.
Critics say there are plenty of examples of neglect of duty by Saul, including an allegation that the agency was weeks late sending necessary information to the Internal Revenue Service, thus delaying the sending of $1,400 stimulus payments to nearly 30 million Social Security and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries last month. “They are sabotaging the Biden administration by delaying relief checks,” Alex Lawson, executive director of the Social Security Works advocacy group, said March 25.
A group of House Ways and Means Committee Democrats said in a statement the next day that the IRS had requested the payment files in late February, two weeks before Biden signed the American Rescue Plan legislation authorizing the stimulus benefits, but that SSA “defied congressional intent and imposed needless anxiety and pain on taxpayers.”
Saul said in response that his agency had not been permitted under the Social Security Act “to substantively engage Treasury or IRS” before the American Rescue Plan became law March 11. “Once we were free to move forward, we aggressively worked with Treasury and IRS to issue payments,” he said.
Saul, a former New York business executive and top Republican donor, began his six-year term in June 2019. During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, he headed a board that oversees retirement savings plans for military and federal employees.
SSA declined to make Saul or others available to be interviewed, but agency spokesman Mark Hinkle provided written responses to questions from The Sun. “Commissioner Saul’s term ends in January 2025 and he intends to continue leading the agency,” Hinkle said.
Saul pledged at his Senate confirmation hearing in 2018 to modernize SSA systems and improve processes under which administrative law judges determine claimants’ eligibility for disability payments.
On April 2, SSA revised its criteria for determining whether millions of applicants will receive disability payments for a range of back, spine, joint and other disorders. About 9 million people receive benefits to replace lost income because they can no longer work.
The change requires new conditions to be met — revisions that the agency says will ensure its requirements are “up to date and accurately reflect current medical criteria.”
But critics say the rule will increase the number of denials, much the way they say an earlier agency proposal in 2019 would have done. In that case, Saul proposed increasing the frequency of disability eligibility reviews. The Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group, said that could have resulted “not only in unnecessary red tape and stress for beneficiaries, but also a loss of benefits for some of our most vulnerable citizens.”
The rule was withdrawn after being reviewed — and rejected — by the incoming Biden administration two days after he was inaugurated on Jan. 20. The administration concluded it had the authority to thwart the action because the rule had not yet completed the lengthy procedure to become finalized.
Saul’s defenders say he has been the subject of unwarranted criticism that is politically motivated.
“I just don’t see any case” for firing Saul for neglect or malfeasance, said Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
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“On the disability front, Saul has pushed for updating certain definitions for helping decide disability cases,” said Biggs, who was SSA deputy commissioner during the presidential administration of Bush, a Republican. “This is a perfectly defensible policy recommendation he is proposing even if you disagree with it on substance. He is favoring policies that produce an outcome that certain people in Congress don’t like.”
Congressional Democrats have been joined by federal employee unions in seeking Saul’s removal. Labor leaders say he is perpetuating Trump’s anti-worker legacy, and that labor-management turbulence won’t subside until he and Black are gone.
Saul “continues to lash out against the union,” said Ralph de Juliis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220, which represents more than 26,000 SSA employees. “He will continue to frustrate the Biden administration and labor-management relations with AFGE until he is removed,” de Juliis said.
Trump was frequently at odds with federal workers, believing civil service protections prevented them from being sufficiently accountable to their bosses and the public. On Jan. 22, Biden rescinded Trump executive orders that had restricted Social Security union members’ access to government office space for union business and limited time at work for union activities, such as discussion about grievances.
“There is a level of disrespect that comes from the top, including Commissioner Saul and Deputy Commissioner Black,” Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said last month. The union represents some 1,200 members.
McIntosh’s union has also criticized a new rule allowing agency attorneys — not just administrative law judges — to conduct hearings and make decisions on whether to grant benefits. Unlike administrative law judges, the attorneys receive performance appraisals and lack the independence from the agency that is necessary to assure due process, McIntosh said.
SSA counters that the rule will allow it to maximize its resources. “We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that claimants receive accurate decisions from impartial decision-makers,” the agency wrote in defending the change in the Federal Register last year.