“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.

Protecting Retirement Savings Should Be a Priority

Published on March 7, 2015 in the Pawtucket Times

Last month, President Obama used his presidential bully pulpit to publicly support a proposed U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) rule, endorsed by a coalition of aging, labor and consumer groups, that reportedly limits conflicts of interest, increases accountability, and strengthens protection for Americans receiving retirement investment advice.

At the February 23 press conference held at the Washington, D.C.-based AARP headquarters, attended by Obama, Save Our Retirement Coalition members and lawmakers, the President called for the issuing of the proposed rule, still awaiting Office of Management and Budget (OMB) review and final DOL action. The updating of DOL rules and requirements would require higher standards for financial advisors, requiring them to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving financial advice, said Obama.

The Save Our Retirement Coalition says that the final rule is “needed to help protect Americans’ hard earned retirement savings from advisers who recommend investments based on their own interest – such as those that pay generous commissions – not because they serve their clients’ best interest.”

Existing Rules Outdated

In his remarks at AARP, Obama called the rules governing retirement investments written over 40 years ago “outdated,” filled with “legal loopholes,” and just “fine print,” needing an overhaul.  The existing rules governing retirement investments were written “at a time when most workers with a retirement plan had traditional pensions, and IRAs were brand new, and 401ks didn’t even exist,” the President explained.

At the event, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez., claimed that his agency has substantially reached out to “a wide range of stakeholders,” to craft the proposed rule that was sent to OMB.  “The input we have received to date has been invaluable, but we’re not even close to being done. We have a lot more listening to do, and once the Notice of Proposed Rule Making is published in the coming months, I look forward to hearing from as many stakeholders as I can. We’re going to get this right, because the strength of the middle class depends on a secure retirement,” he says.

“We know the people we represent have worked hard to save for retirement, and we believe that they deserve to have financial advisers who work just as hard to protect what they’ve earned,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, in her remarks.  AARP is a member of the Save Our Retirement Coalition.

“AARP, a major consumer advocate, has been fought for this consumer regulation for over five years to ensure that Americans of all ages get the best financial advice when planning for their retirement,” says Jenkins. “Recently AARP also found that 9 out of 10 employers who sponsor retirement savings plans support holding advice to such a ‘best interest’ standard,” she adds. .

“In today’s world, it’s hard enough to save for retirement and achieve your financial goals” added Jenkins. “We don’t need to make it more difficult by allowing some on Wall Street to take advantage of hard-working Americans. Bad financial advice is just wrong,” she says.

According to Save Our Retirement Coalition, “the need for the proposed rule was made starkly apparent in a White House report released showing that conflicts of interest are costing middle class families and billions of dollars annually. The 30 page report, released last month, details the current regulatory environment for financial planners, providing evidence on the negative financial impact of conflicted professional investment advice draining older American’s retirement saving accounts.

The White House report, issued by Council of Economic Advisors, cited evidence pulled from the literature, showing that “conflicted advice reduces investment returns by roughly 1 percentage point for savers receiving that advice” The report also found that “a retiree who receives conflicted advice when rolling over a 401 (k) balance to an IRA at retirement will lose an estimated 12 percent of the value of his or her savings if drawn down over 30 years.  For those receiving conflicted advice “takes withdrawals at the rate possible absent conflicted advice, his or her savings would run out more than 5 years earlier.”

Holding Wall Street Accountable

“Many investment professionals do what’s right,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. ”But loopholes in the law are allowing some on Wall Street  to take advantage of hard-working Americans, recommending investments with higher fees, riskier investments, and lower returns to make even higher profits for themselves. Last year alone, hidden fees, unfair risk and bad investment advice robbed Americans of as much as $17 billion,” she states.

“AARP agrees that financial professionals of all types serve a valuable role in building the wealth and security of the investing public,” added Connell. “We simply want to achieve some consistency in the standards across the industry. Here is Rhode Island, many retirees are very concerned about their investment savings and they deserve protection. Our position is that retirement accounts managed by a broker should receive the same protections as regular investment accounts held with an advisor,” she says.

“Rhode Islanders have who have worked hard for their money and deserve a new standard that holds Wall Street genuinely accountable for helping them choose the best investments for themselves, their family and their future,” she adds.

Security Trade Group Concern

             The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), a trade group representing securities firms, banks and asset management companies, is waiting to see the details of the proposed rule.  SIFMA CEO Kenneth E. Bentsen, Jr., stated: “While we cannot comment on a proposal we have not yet seen, we have ongoing concerns that the DOL regulation could adversely affect retirement savers, particularly middle class workers.  The new regulation could limit investor choice, cause inconsistencies as different regulators would apply different standards to the same regulatory accounts, prohibit guidance, and raise the costs of savings for retirement.”

But, both Obama and the Save Our Retirement Coalition strongly disagree with SIFMA’s assessment of the potential impact of DOL’s proposed rule, which has not yet been issued and is ultimately subject to change after the public comment period.

A large majority of financial planners put their clients first when giving them investment advice. But, as you know a few bad apples can truly spoil the barrel.  If trade groups representing financial planners fail to act to rein in financial planners who give conflicted advice to pad their pockets, than federal regulations can quickly do that job by applying “simple, commonsense standards.”

It makes practical and political sense to me.

Here is a linked to President Obama’s comments at the AARP Press Conference: http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2015/02/23/president-obama-speaks-aarp.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com . Or call 401/ 742-5372.