Since the Social Security Administration was made independent from the Health and Human Services Department in the 1990s, only two of the agency’s commissioners have served the full six-year term.
A bipartisan governmental panel of Social Security experts on Wednesday urged senators to move quickly to consider President Biden’s nomination of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to serve as commissioner of the Social Security Administration and called on Congress to do away with term lengths for the position.
Biden picked O’Malley in July, after nearly two years in which the Social Security Administration was led by Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi following the ouster of Trump administration holdover Andrew Saul in 2021. O’Malley has received the endorsement of more than 30 federal employee unions, although the Senate Finance Committee has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for the former Democratic presidential candidate.
In a letter to Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and ranking member Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Wednesday, the members of the Social Security Advisory Board, a bipartisan governmental panel of Social Security experts directly appointed by the House and Senate, urged the quick consideration of O’Malley’s nomination. The four board members also called on Congress to overhaul the method by which Social Security commissioners are appointed and confirmed to their jobs.
“We write to urge the committee to swiftly consider the nomination of Gov. Martin O’Malley to be commissioner of Social Security,” the board wrote. “In addition, we recommend Congress amend the Social Security Act to state that the commissioner of Social Security once again serves at the pleasure of the president.”
In the 1990s, Congress moved the Social Security Administration out from under the auspices of the Health and Human Services Department and made it an independent agency. As part of that reform effort, lawmakers provided removal protections to the agency’s commissioner and established a six-year term for the position, a compromise between the Senate’s proposal for the agency to be run by a single commissioner and the House’s plan setting up a three-member board with six-year terms to run the agency.
But since 1995, when the first six-year term for the position began, only two commissioners actually served close to a full six years in the post.
“Since March 31, 1995, SSA has had 12 commissioners,” the advisory board wrote. “Only two (commissioners [Jo Anne] Barnhart and [Michael] Astrue) served nearly the full six-year term. In the absence of a Senate-confirmed commissioner, an acting commissioner is named. In the past decade, SSA has had an acting commissioner for eight years. Our assessment is that after nearly 30 years, the six-year term for the commissioner has not been successful.”
O’Malley’s nomination, and the advisory panel’s recommendations, come at a pivotal moment for the Social Security Administration. After decades of declining resources and employee headcounts, coupled with increasing demands on the agency in the form of a growing number of beneficiaries, unions representing the agency’s frontline workforce warn that employees are nearing a breaking point and a mass exodus could commence if lawmakers don’t appropriate more funding to rebuild the organization.