“There’s a New Sheriff in Town” at SSA

Published in RINewsToday on June 19, 2020

On June President Joe Biden has asked two political holdovers from the President Trump’s administration, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and his deputy, David Black, who had previously served as the agency’s top lawyer, to resign. Saul ultimately was fired after refusing to resign Friday, July 9, while Black resigned upon the president’s request that day. 

Biden named as acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, whom he earlier had appointed to a lower-level Social Security Administration (SSA) position, deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy. 

The White House affirmed its authority to “remove the SSA Commissioner at will” by citing a Supreme Court ruling and a legal opinion from the Justice Department. Previously, under statute, the president could only remove the SSA commissioner for “neglect of duty” or “malfeasance in office.”

Saul’s term as Social Security Administrator ended in 2025 and according to The Washington Post, he states he plans to dispute the White House firing and continue to work remotely at his New York City home.

“I consider myself the term-protected commissioner of Social Security,” Saul told The Washington Post, calling the attempt to unseat him a “Friday Night Massacre.”

Minority Members of Senate Aging Committee Oppose Firing

Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Fla..), Mike Braun (R-Ind..), Rick Scott (R-Fla..), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent a letter July 14 to President Biden urging him to reinstate and honor the Senate confirmed, six-year term of Saul as SSA Commissioner. 

Members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging find the politically motivated action especially worrisome as it will have drastic effects on SSA services that help millions of older Americans with basic expenses like housing, food and medicine. 

The letter explains “Commissioner Saul was confirmed by the Senate in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2019… led the agency through one of the most trying periods in its history during the COVID-19 pandemic… was confirmed by the Senate to serve a full six-year term that expires in 2025 and he should have remained in his position unless removed for cause, as written in federal law.

The committee requested the Biden administration explain what authority an acting commissioner—not confirmed by the Senate—would possess to carry out the statutorily obligated duties of the SSA commissioner. 

 On the Other Side of the Aisle…

“From the beginning of their tenure at the Social Security Administration Andrew Saul and David Black were anti-beneficiary and anti-employee. The Biden Administration made the right move to fire both Saul and Black after they refused to resign, says chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT), of the House Ways and Means Social Security Committee, who had called for Saul and Black’s removal in March 2021. “As [Supreme Court] Justice Alito recently stated, the president needs someone running the agency who will follow their policy agenda,” he says.

According to Larson, since June 17, 2019, Saul’s control over SSA policies have “disproportionately harmed vulnerable Americans like low-income seniors and persons with disabilities, immigrants and people of color.

During Saul’s tenure, Larson noted that the SSA implemented a new rule that denied disability benefits for older, severely disabled workers who are unable to communicate in English, resulting in approximately 100,000 people being denied more than $5 billion in benefits from 2020 to 2029. However, there has been considerable discussion of the misinterpretation of the intent of this change.

SSA also finalized a new regulation that dramatically reduced due process protections for Social Security appeals hearings, by allowing the SSA to use agency attorneys instead of independent judges for the hearings, says Larson.

Larson also expressed concern about SSA proposing to change the disability review process to cut off benefits for some eligible people and proposing to make it significantly harder for older, severely disabled workers to be found eligible for disability benefits. 

According to Larson, Saul also advanced the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies by resuming “no-match letters” to employers with even minor discrepancies between their wage reports and their employees’ Social Security records. These letters effectively serve to harass immigrants and their employers, often leading to U.S. citizens and work-authorized immigrants being fired, he said.

Finally, Larson charged that Saul embraced the Trump Administration’s anti-federal employee policies, including forcing harsh union contracts that strip employees of rights and ending telework for thousands of employees just months before the COVID-19 pandemic started – a particularly ill-fated decision given the critical role telework has played in SSA’s ability to continue serving the public during the pandemic. 

Thumbs Up from Aging Advocacy Groups 

“The Social Security Commissioner should reflect the values and priorities of President Biden, which include improving benefits, extending solvency, improving customer services, reopening field offices, and treating SSA employees and their unions fairly. That was not the case with former Commissioner Saul, and we look forward to President Biden nominating someone who meets that standard,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works: “Today is a great day for every current and future Social Security beneficiary. Andrew Saul and David Black were appointed by former President Donald Trump to undermine Social Security. They’ve done their very best to carry out that despicable mission. That includes waging a war on people with disabilities, demoralizing the agency’s workforce, and delaying President Biden’s stimulus checks.”  

Introducing New SSA Commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi…

Kilolo Kijakazi has a Ph.D. in public policy from George Washington University, an MSW from Howard University, and a BA from SUNY Binghamton University. Kijakazi’s Urban Institute bio notes that she served as an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, where she “worked with staff across the organization to develop collaborative partnerships with those most affected by economic and social issues, to expand and strengthen Urban’s agenda of rigorous research, to effectively communicate findings to diverse audiences and to recruit and retain a diverse research staff at all levels” while conducting research on economic security, structural racism, and the racial wealth gap. 

Kijakazi was previously employed as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a program analyst at the Food Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture, and an analyst at the National Urban League.

According to Wikipedia, before entering the Biden administration, Kijakazi was a board member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the National Academy of Social Insurance and its Study Panel on Economic Security, the Policy Academies and Liberation in a Generation, as well as a member of the DC Equitable Recovery Advisory Group, adviser to Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Eliminating the Black-White Wealth Gap at the Center for American Progress, and member of the Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

“Kilolo has an amazing ability to find and build connections among individuals and institutions that should be working together on critical public policy issues and policy discussions are much better for that inclusionary approach,” says Margaret Simms, an Institute Fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute.

Seniors would benefit in President Biden’s $6 trillion budget

Published in RINewsToday on June 14, 2021

On May 28, with the release of a $6 trillion budget for fiscal year (FY) 2022, President Joe Biden outlined his values and vision as to how he proposes to revive the nation’s sputtering economic engine as it emerges from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 72-page budget document, “Budget of the United States,” (with more than a 1,400-page appendix) details his spending priorities that begin next Oct. 1. Biden’s generous budget depends on increasing taxes on America’s corporations (from 21 to 28 percent) and high earners, who received significant tax breaks from the President Trump/GOP tax cuts of 2017.

With the FY 2022 Budget pushing federal debt to the highest levels since World War 1I, Republican lawmakers quickly called the proposal “dead on arrival” in Congress.  However, Cecilia Rouse, chair of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors says the Biden Administration is willing to live with a budget deficit to invest in the economy now, especially with low interest rates to borrow; deficits can be reduced later. 

President Biden’s new spending under the just released proposed FY 2022 budget, recognizing his Administration’s priorities, reflects the major proposals already outlined under the administration’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Provisions in these two proposals would overhaul the nation’s aging infrastructure and invest in education, childcare, paid family and medical leave, fight climate change. 

President Biden’s spending plan also recognizes priorities outlined in the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year as well as the Administration’s “skinny” discretionary budget request released in April. Most importantly, it reflects a commitment from the president to safeguard Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Loving It or Hating It Depends on Where You Sit

In remarks delivered Thursday in Cleveland, President Biden made the case for his budget request and what he describes as an investment in the country’s future. “Now is the time to build [on] the foundation that we’ve laid to make bold investments in our families and our communities and our nation,” he said. “We know from history that these kinds of investments raise both the floor and the ceiling over the economy for everybody.”

In the FY 2020 Budget proposal’s “Message from the President”, Biden says, “The Budget invests directly in the American People and will strengthen the nation’s economy and improve our long run fiscal health. It reforms our broken tax code to reward work instead of wealth while fully paying for the American Jobs and American Family Plans over a 15- year period. It will help us build a recovery that is broad-based, inclusive, sustained, and strong,”

Of course, response to Biden’s Spending plan depends on which side of the aisle you are sitting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a statement strongly endorsing Biden’s fiscal blueprint. “Congressional Democrats look forward to working with the Biden-Harris Administration to enact this visionary budget, which will pave the path to opportunity and prosperity for our nation. The Biden Budget is a budget for the people,” she said.

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly opposing Biden’s Budget proposal. “Americans are already hurting from far-left economics that ignores reality,” said McConnell, in a statement. “The Administration’s counterproductive ‘COVID relief bill’ has slowed rehiring. Families are facing painful inflation, just as experts warned the Democrats’ plans might cause. And the Administration wants to triple down on the same mistakes?” said the six-term Republican Kentucky Senator.

With the Democrats holding the slim majorities in the House and Senate and controlling the White House, Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal will have more weight than if the Republicans were in the majority, says Dan Adcock, Government Relations and Policy Director at the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).

According to Adcock, Biden’s funding numbers will change as his FY 2022 budget proposal goes through the appropriation process in the upcoming months. With its release, Congress can now begin negotiating funding levels and spending bills. Competition for a finite amount of funding will ultimately result in funding level ultimately allotted to programs and agencies by each of the 12 appropriations under their jurisdiction. Funding for most programs important to older Americans is under the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

“With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day – and the number of seniors projected to double by 2050 – it’s clear that President Biden understands the need to safeguard the older Americans he calls ‘pillars of every community – now and into the future.” Says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO.

Slashing Drug Costs to Pay for Expanding Medicare Coverage

Richtman says that Biden’s fiscal blueprint calls on Congress to allow Medicare to negotiate prices for certain high-cost, life-saving drugs that many seniors currently cannot afford and to require manufacturers to pay rebates when drug prices rise faster than inflation. These reforms could yield over half a trillion in federal savings over 10 years, which could help pay for coverage expansions and improvements, including access to dental, hearing, and vision coverage in Medicare,” he notes. Today, traditional Medicare does not cover routine care like dental checkups or hearing aids.

According to Richtman, President Biden’s budget also includes more than $400 billion in new spending over ten years to expand Home and Community-based Services (HCBS) for low-income seniors and people with disabilities who prefer to receive skilled care in the comfort of their homes and communities, even moreso after the devastation COVID wrought on nursing homes.  

In states that have not taken advantage of Affordable Care Act (ACA) opportunities to expand Medicaid, the budget proposes providing premium-free, Medicaid-like coverage through a federal public option, along with incentives for states to maintain their existing expansions. 

Biden’s FY 2022 budget also urges Congress to improve customer service for Social Security beneficiaries to prescription drug pricing reform to expanded HCBS, adds Richtman.  It also proposes a $1.3 billion (or 9.7%) funding increase for the Social Security Administration.  The increase seeks to improve customer service, including services at SSA’s field offices, state disability determination services, and teleservice centers.

 The Older Americans Act (OAA) provides funding for a wide range of home and community-based services, such as meals-on-wheels and other nutrition programs, in-home services, transportation, legal services, elder abuse prevention and caregivers’ support. These programs help seniors stay as independent as possible in their homes and communities. 

For details about Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal and OAA funding levels, made available from the Washington, DC-based National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, go to: https://www.n4a.org//Files/FY22%20PresBudget%20and%20historical%20Labor-HHS%20Appropriations%20Chart.pdf

 Stay Tuned 

The House continues its work on hammering out appropriation bills through subcommittees in June and in the full House in July.  The Senate’s work is expected to begin in mid-Summer and to continue well into September. If the appropriate bills are not passed and signed into law by Oct. 1, Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government into the first months of FY 2022.

Like most Budget proposals, especially in a partisan Congress, Biden’s spending plan will need to be rewritten to win support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. However, it will serve as a roadmap for a Democratic controlled Congress in crafting 12 appropriation spending bills. Partisan bickering during the appropriations process may well force passage of a continuing resolution before Oct. 1 to block a government shutdown. 

“Georgia on My Mind”

Published by RINewsToday on March 29, 2021

Rewriting election rules has ramifications for voting accessibility of older adults. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans now control 30 state houses with 18 being controlled by the Democrats, one legislature being nonpartisan. As the country looks at its election and voting rules, the background has been set for partisan politics of the highest order.

With this backdrop, legislation is being drafted to rewrite election laws. These steps could disproportionately impact minority communities. According to the New York City-based Brennan Center for Justice, as of Feb. 19, 2021, there are 253 bills with provisions that could restrict voting access pending in 43 states. More than a quarter of these voting and election bills address absentee voting procedures.

The legislation restricting voting includes creating stricter voter ID requirements, creating additional restrictions on voter registration, prohibiting the harvesting of ballots where a third party collects and delivers absentee ballots to the Board of Elections, reducing some opportunities to vote early, barring felons from voting, and reducing the number of polls. Some state legislatures are expected to re-draw legislative districts which could also have the effect of diluting voting power and representation of specific groups.

The Nation’s Long History of Absentee Voting

During the 2020 Presidential election, there were more than 50 challenges claiming electoral fraud and irregularities in absentee voting were made in various courts, but most not upheld. This method of voting has been around for hundreds of years, though it is more actively used today. In the past one had to attest to their physical inability to go to the poll or that they would be away from home on election day.

According to Becca Damanta, senior research associate of the Washington, DC-based Constitutional Accountability Center, a progressive think tank, the earliest record of absentee voting occurred in Dec. 1775 when a group of soldiers from the Continental Armory sent a letter to their town asking to absentee vote in a local election. At a meeting, the town agreed to count these votes “as if the men were present themselves,” says Damanta. Pennsylvania allowed soldiers to absentee vote during the War of 1812 but this law would be declared unconstitutional in 1862. She noted that New Jersey had a similar law dating back to 1815, but this law was repealed in 1820.

Damanta stated that the first major use of absentee ballots occurred during the Civil War when Wisconsinbefore the 1862 midterm elections, enacted legislation to allow armory officers to conduct the vote in their camps and then forward the ballots to the governor and Secretary of State.

“By the 1864 presidential election, 19 Northern states had legislation allowing soldiers to vote away from home, either through polling places in the field or by mailing ballots home. Some soldiers were also allowed to vote by proxy whereby a soldier designated someone at home to cast his vote. By the time the election had concluded, about 150,000 of the 1 million Union soldiers voted absentee.

Damanta added: “After the Civil War ended, the states gradually passed new laws to expand absentee voting to civilians. Between 1911 and 1924, 45 of the 48 states adopted some kind of absentee voting. In some cases, these laws required voters to have a specific reason or excuse to vote absentee, such as travel or illness. Today, registered voters can vote absentee in all 50 states, though 16 states still required a documented ‘excuse’ to do so.”

The Importance of Casting a Vote by Absentee Ballot for Seniors

In a March 2021 issue brief, “The Importance of Mail-in Ballots to Seniors,” the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), noted that just before the COVID-19 pandemic, “five states were already holding entirely mail-in elections — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., allowed ‘no excuse’ mail-in absentee voting. Sixteen states allowed voters to cast a ballot by mail if they had an excuse. In the 2016 presidential election, about one in four voters cast their votes via ballots mailed to them.”

According to NCPSSM, seniors like the ease and comfort of vote-by-mail. “Those who are immobile or sick can request mail ballots, as can those who cannot drive or lack access to mass transit. Mail ballots represent a way for those individuals to exercise their rights at election time in a convenient way, with over 60% of seniors age 65 and older living in states which currently use all mail-in voting systems support moving all elections to mail-in voting,” says NCPSSM’s issue brief. 41% of voters age 50-64 and 55% of voters over age 65 voted by mail in the 2020 election.

While some lawmakers alleged widespread absentee ballot fraud in the president 20020 election, NCPSSM cited studies that found vote-by-mail to be consistently free of fraud. “A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study says it found only 0.00006% of 250 million votes by mailed ballots nationwide were fraudulent. Additionally, scholars at Stanford University analyzing 1996-2018 data in California, Utah, Washington found vote-by-mail did not advantage one political party over another, noted NCPSSM.

In 2020, NCCPSM noted that many seniors took advantage of the easier voting when staying safe during the pandemic was a competing, if not greater concern. Voting-by-mail seemed destined to become a convenient choice liked by many, regardless of the inability to call close races on election night, with some races going to lengthy counts of ballots in boxes stored in a variety of locations. This election year was the most unusual ever, and standards were developed quickly in the year where a pandemic and presidential election were occurring simultaneously. It’s clear that if these practices are to become permanent, details should be shored up for security and confidence purposes.

At press time, while GOP-controlled state legislatures move to restrict voting on vote-by mail procedures, it becomes even more important now to be sure that while the security of the vote is shored up, the constitutional right to vote is not impeded – especially for the housebound, the frail, and the elderly.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, signed S.B. 202, a 96-page bill that would shorten timelines, drop box restrictions, make it easier for state officials to have control of local election boards, ban third-party groups from sending absentee-ballot applications to voters, end the use of portable polling sites, and requiring a either a driver’s license or state ID or a photo copy of their identification to cast a mail in ballot. Water could still be available in a self-serve table, but no longer would be able to be given out by volunteers representing one candidate or another.  

After passage on March 25, Gov. Kemp stated, “I knew, like so many of you, that significant reforms to our elections were needed.”  He stated, “Georgia will take a step ensuring our elections are secure, accessible and fair. Republicans defend the law saying that it will preserve the state’s election integrity and root out election fraud. Some voting rights advocates view Georgia’s new law as a GOP attempt to influence an election by suppressing voter turnout, particularly from minorities. Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight Action, stated, “Now, more than ever, Americans must demand federal action to protect voting rights as we continue to fight against these blatantly unconstitutional efforts that are nothing less than Jim Crow 2.0.” The Jim Crow comment has become a Democratic speaking point as it was later repeated by President Biden when referencing voter ballot changes.

Now, attention turns to Washington, DC to block GOP efforts to restrict voting in states by the passage of bills in state legislatures. The House recently passed H.R. 1, “For the People Act of 2021,” considered to be the largest overhaul of U.S. election law in a generation. The House proposal, now being considered by the Senate, can block state houses from taking steps seen as taking away the voting rights of their residents. Their legislative proposal contains a set of national mail-in voting standards, guaranteeing no-excuse mail-in voting. The act requires states to give every voter the option to vote by mail, calls for prepaid postage for all election materials and state-provided drop boxes for federal races.

Currently, 60 votes are needed to pass H.R.1’s Senate companion measure. President Joe Biden has indicated that he would support a change of current Senate rules to allow H.R.1 to pass by eliminating the filibuster that would reduce the number of votes for this legislation to pass. 

Stay tuned….