The Social Security Administration will get a new commissioner after the U.S. Senate voted Monday to confirm former Maryland Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley for the post.
The 50-11 vote was bipartisan, though many senators were absent, likely back home during what was originally scheduled to be part of the three-week winter break.
Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said Monday that O’Malley plans to brief the committee monthly until the administration fixes overpayments and other issues.
The committee has heard from several people who didn’t realize they’re getting paid too much by Social Security until one day they receive a letter telling them they owe thousands of dollars, Wyden said.
“That’s life altering and it’s wrong,” Wyden said. “Those mistaken overpayments can be the difference between paying for groceries, having electricity during this cold weather.”
Wyden said he believes O’Malley is the right person to address that problem as well as others.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin said Monday that O’Malley will be “the strong operational leader that the Social Security Administration needs right now.”
“He has demonstrated time and time again that by focusing on performance management, smart governance and data driven results, he can bring change and accountability to large organizations and significantly improve government service to the American people,” Cardin said.
O’Malley will lead the Social Security Administration “with respect and support for a strong union workforce,” Cardin said.
The Social Security Administration hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed commissioner since July 2021, when the Biden administration removed Andrew Saul from the role.
The White House fired Saul, a Trump nominee who was confirmed on a 77-16 vote, amid disagreements about how he was running the agency and his interactions with the union that represented federal employees.
“Since taking office, Commissioner Saul has undermined and politicized Social Security disability benefits, terminated the agency’s telework policy that was utilized by up to 25 percent of the agency’s workforce, not repaired SSA’s relationships with relevant Federal employee unions including in the context of COVID-19 workplace safety planning, reduced due process protections for benefits appeals hearings, and taken other actions that run contrary to the mission of the agency and the President’s policy agenda,” the White House said at the time of his firing, according to the Washington Post.
The Social Security Administration has been run by an acting commissioner ever since, but O’Malley will change that once he’s sworn in.
O’Malley will have considerable challenges ahead during his six-year term as commissioner, including working with Congress and the White House to address the looming solvency crisis.
Social Security will no longer be able to pay full benefits starting in 2033 unless lawmakers reach a deal before then to shore up the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund.
The latest report from the Trustees, released in March, said that without changes the program would only be able to pay 77% of the total scheduled benefits after that time.
During his confirmation hearing in early November, O’Malley said that the Social Security Administration faced an “urgent crisis” regarding customer service and a problem on “the horizon with regard to solvency.”
The average wait time for people calling the 1-800 number had risen to 37 minutes and the average wait time for an initial disability determination had reached 220 days, he said.
O’Malley also noted the Social Security Administration has seen a 50% increase in customers and beneficiaries since 1995, but is working with the same level of staffing it had back then.
O’Malley said he had no doubt that the agency could address the customer service backlog, though he also repeatedly mentioned during his confirmation hearing that only members of Congress can address the structure of Social Security.
“As a mayor, I learned there is no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole,” O’Malley said during his confirmation hearing. “And as a governor, I learned that the biggest and toughest challenges can only be tackled with some degree of bipartisan consensus and cooperation.”
O’Malley was a member of the Baltimore City Council from 1991 through December 1999 when he became the city’s mayor.
He was elected governor of Maryland in 2006 and was sworn in the following year. He was reelected to a second four-year term but had to leave office after that under the state’s term limits.
O’Malley mounted an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.