A new Supreme Court ruling could clear the way for President Joe Biden to fire the Donald Trump appointees running the Social Security Administration.
Biden has resisted calls from prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill to fire Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul, at least partly because federal law says the commissioner can only be fired for “neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.”
In other words, it’s not enough that the agency has angered Democrats by cutting eligibility for disability benefits and warring against the unions that represent the agency’s massive workforce.
But the Supreme Court said Wednesday that a similar restriction was unconstitutional in the case of the Federal Housing Finance Agency director, who could only be removed “for cause” before their term ends. The White House promptly announced it would replace Mark Calabria, whom Trump appointed to a five-year term in 2018.
In its Collins v. Yellen decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court held Wednesday that the “removal power helps the President maintain a degree of control over the subordinates he needs to carry out his duties” and that it ensures “that these subordinates serve the people effectively and in accordance with the policies that the people presumably elected the President to promote.”
In a footnote, the court acknowledged that there are other agencies with similar leadership structures, but said “we do not comment on the constitutionality of any removal restriction that applies to their officers.” Yet it’s the second time the court said Congress couldn’t stop the president from firing an agency head after having decided last year that Donald Trump could replace the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In a concurring opinion on Wednesday, Justice Elena Kagan wrote of Social Security that “a betting person might wager that the agency’s removal provision is next on the chopping block.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Saul’s detractors said Wednesday’s ruling made it clear Biden could fire Saul, whose term would end in 2025.
“The Supreme Court reiterated today what we have long known, there is nothing stopping President Biden from removing the current Commissioner of Social Security Andrew Saul,” Alex Lawson, director of the progressive advocacy group Social Security Works, said in an email.
Lawson said Saul and deputy Commissioner David Black “were put in their roles by former president Trump to sabotage Social Security and destroy it from the inside” and that they should be fired “today.”
Under Saul, the Social Security Administration sought to achieve longtime Republican goals of cutting enrollment in disability programs for workers and the poor. The agency promulgated tighter eligibility rules and tried to increase reviews of disability claimants who were already approved for benefits.
Ralph de Juliis, president of AFGE Council 220, which represents Social Security workers, noted that Saul had earned his potential firing by angering the agency’s workers by restricting telework before the pandemic and delaying stimulus checks to millions of Social Security recipients this year
“Council 220 believes that today’s ruling gives President Biden ample discretion to fire Saul for cause and replace him with someone committed to investing in and improving Social Security,” de Juliis said.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who has called for Saul’s ouster, said he hadn’t looked at the new Supreme Court decision yet and declined to say whether it gave Biden more leeway to make a change at Social Security.
“I’ll rely on the president, his vast experience,” Larson told HuffPost. “It’s clear that he’d like to have his own person in there.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has also called for Saul to be fired, said the Supreme Court had bolstered the case to do so.
“If we are to protect and expand Social Security for seniors, people with disabilities and survivors, we need new leadership dedicated to carrying out that vision,” he said.