Last week, the Senate confirmed Martin O’Malley to be the next Commissioner of Social Security. This is a major achievement: It marks the first time in over 25 years that the Senate has confirmed a Social Security commissioner nominated by a Democratic president. Indeed, commissioners nominated by Democratic presidents have headed the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) for only eight years of the last 40.
This fact is important because the Democratic and Republican parties have very different views about Social Security. Democrats created Social Security and in recent years have united around the need to protect and expand the system’s modest benefits.
In sharp contrast, when Social Security was enacted in 1935, Republicans in Congress were overwhelmingly hostile. From the early 1950s until recently, mainstream Republicans largely voted for protecting and expanding Social Security, as the program became established and highly popular among voters across the ideological spectrum. But in recent years, as the Republican Party became radicalized, Republican politicians have returned to deep opposition to Social Security — though mostly in a subtle fashion since they know their voters support the system.
One way that they have expressed that hostility is by starving SSA of funding, undermining Social Security from within.
It is important to recognize that Social Security’s funding comes not from the general fund, which has run large and growing deficits. Rather, its funding comes from Social Security’s trust funds, which currently are in surplus in the amount of $2.8 trillion. (In fact, if the trust funds ever have insufficient revenue to pay every penny of costs, including administrative costs, benefits would not be paid. Social Security has no borrowing authority.)
The starvation of the agency by Republican politicians has had its impact. SSA was once known for its extremely high-quality customer service, and considered one of the best places to work in the federal government, if not the best. Generations of families worked for SSA. But over the last 13 years, largely Republican-controlled congresses have cut the agency’s budget by 17 percent, even as the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by 22 percent.
As a result, the agency’s staffing has fallen to the lowest level in 25 years. Beneficiaries face long wait times at field offices and when calling the 1-800 number. Many offices have closed their doors. People with disabilities are often forced to wait a year or more for an eligibility hearing for Social Security benefits, with many going bankrupt or even dying in the interim. Not surprisingly, employee morale at SSA is low, with recent surveys finding that SSA employees have the lowest job satisfaction of any large federal government agency.
As important as it is to have a confirmed commissioner who has been nominated by a Democratic president, that is necessary but not sufficient. SSA needs a commissioner who will inspire the agency’s hard-working public servants, letting them know that the person at the top recognizes the invaluable work they perform each and every day. Perhaps even more important, SSA’s leader must be willing and able to push Congress for adequate funding.
That is why the confirmation of O’Malley is such an important win for all Americans. That includes Republicans and Independents, as well as Democrats. He has a proven track record that shows he is the right person for the job. He has extensive executive experience from his time as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. At his recent confirmation hearing, O’Malley emphasized the importance of listening to frontline workers at the agency. As a confirmed commissioner, he will have the platform needed to share the stories of those workers, as well as beneficiaries, with Congress — and make the case for adequate funding.
O’Malley has other crucial attributes that make his confirmation a big win for all Americans. As important as it is for the commissioner to be strongly supportive of Social Security and an advocate for the agency and its workforce, the position requires a person deeply committed to serving the American people with dedication and compassion. O’Malley is such a person.
As a Senate-confirmed commissioner, O’Malley is in a strong position to provide Americans with the first-class customer service they deserve. That includes restoring the annual earnings statement which the law requires the agency to send out every year to inform Americans about their earned benefits. Importantly, in addition to the fact that the law requires the mailing of the statement to every worker, the mailing is important for letting working families know of the benefits they are earning and correcting errors in reported earnings. Notably, it was a Republican commissioner who ended the earnings statements.
Moreover, O’Malley is the right person to address another serious issue which has been in the news of late. When SSA has inadvertently overpaid beneficiaries, it has been mailing intimidating letters demanding repayment from people who often are not at fault and can’t afford to repay. This is cruel, reportedly causing great stress, literally landing people in the hospital.
SSA should stop this practice. It should also address underpayments. Though not as dramatic and terrifying as demands by the government for payments of large sums of money, underpayments are equally serious. They are quite literally wage theft, since — like private pensions — Social Security is deferred compensation. In this case, though, the wages are stolen not by employers, but by those who are supposed to be serving those it is stealing from.
The agency appears to believe that the law requires it to claw back all overpayments, including those that are SSA’s own fault, and to deprioritize underpayments. O’Malley is perfectly positioned to bring a fresh perspective, to interpret the law more compassionately and to prioritize true program integrity which includes underpayments, not just overpayments. In the highly unlikely event he finds his hands are tied, he is the right person to let Congress and the American people know who is to blame.
And there is another crucial win that the American people will have as a result of O’Malley’s confirmation. Our Social Security system is intended to provide more than just a monthly check. It is supposed to provide Americans with a sense of security that if they lose income in the event of old age, disability or the death of a family breadwinner, Social Security’s earned benefits will be there for them.
When the 2024 Social Security Trustees Report is released next Spring, O’Malley should lead the other trustees in a clear declaration that protecting and expanding Social Security is fully affordable.
That is an important message for the upcoming election. It is essential that Americans understand that whether to expand or cut Social Security is a question of values. President Biden ran in 2020 on expanding — not cutting — Social Security, and paying for it by requiring those earning more than $400,000 a year to pay their fair share. He should now propose specific legislation.
Even though his proposal is not likely to be considered in the current Congress now that “MAGA” Mike Johnson is Speaker of the House, it is still crucial that Biden propose specific legislation and campaign on it. The mainstream media routinely reports that neither party has a plan for Social Security’s future. But that is totally inaccurate.
A majority of congressional Democrats have co-sponsored legislation that expands Social Security while bringing in enough revenue from the very wealthiest to either eliminate Social Security’s long-range shortfall completely or substantially reduce it. In contrast, Republicans have offered zero substantive proposals to ensure that benefits will continue to be paid for the next half century and beyond. Instead, they offer only a process which would leave their fingerprints off any unpopular and unwise benefit cuts.
Their leading proposal is a fast-track commission which avoids hard questions before the election and political accountability, as much as possible, immediately after. Their process would require Congress to vote on the insider commission members’ recommendations immediately after the November election. Members of Congress would have no power to filibuster or even slow it down. The process would leave no time for the public to digest what would be rushed through. Those who lost reelection would have a vote as would those who were retiring. Those newly elected would have none.
That is no way to treat an institution as important and universal as our Social Security system. In contrast, President Biden is championing Social Security for all Americans. He has nominated a first-rate commissioner and, fortunately, the Senate has done its job of confirming the nominee. Biden is fighting for increased funding for SSA and believes, as does the new commissioner, that Social Security should be expanded, not cut.
If the president takes the next step of proposing specific Social Security legislation and runs on it, he will win. The media will not be able to ignore an expansion plan if it is the president’s. When the electorate understands where the two parties stand on Social Security, Democrats will win. They will then be well positioned to move Biden’s expansion legislation in the new Congress.
When that happens, protecting and expanding Social Security will likely be the president’s most important and cherished accomplishment and legacy of his presidency. And his new commissioner, Martin O’Malley, will rightly be known in the future as Mr. Social Security. That will be a win not just for them, but for all of us.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.