The Senate on Monday confirmed former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley to lead the Social Security Administration as the agency faces looming questions about its long-term solvency, systemic dysfunction and ability to handle day-to-day customer service requests.
O’Malley, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, was approved by a vote of 50 to 11. A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in voting for O’Malley as the agency’s commissioner after he earned a reputation as a technocrat, in part, by focusing on measuring government performance.
“Governor Martin O’Malley is the strong operational leader that the Social Security Administration needs right now,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a speech on the Senate floor Monday. Referring to O’Malley’s time as mayor and governor, Cardin added, “He held his team accountable and the results were incredible.”
President Biden nominated O’Malley in July, touting his management skills and vowing to protect benefits. The SSA has been without a confirmed secretary since July 2021, nearly two years after Biden fired Trump administration holdover Andrew Saul. Saul, whose six-year term was scheduled to end in January 2025, previously clamped down on benefits eligibility and took an uncompromising anti-union stance. O’Malley’s confirmation on Monday was to fill the remainder of Saul’s term.
Kilolo Kijakazi has led the agency in an acting capacity since Saul’s firing. She’s blamed poor service and backlogs on staff turnover and budgets that have not kept pace with increased retirement claims from aging baby boomers. In a statement on the agency’s accomplishments in 2023 that was sent hours before the Senate voted to confirm O’Malley, Kijakazi wrote that, “the combined effect of the pandemic and chronic underfunding have taken a toll on our employees.”
“Bottom line, we need enough well-trained employees to ensure we can meet your needs,” she added.
O’Malley’s confirmation also comes as Democrats and Republicans debate how to handle the solvency of the agency, which is tasked with paying more than $1 trillion in benefits to millions of seniors and Americans with disabilities. As part of a series on dysfunction at the agency, The Washington Post revealed that an anti-fraud program led by the agency’s inspector general levied unprecedented fines on the poor and disabled.
The SSA was slow to recover from pandemic slowdowns, reopening its local field offices to the public significantly later than most local and state government operations that serve the public opened theirs.
Critics said the agency was failing to serve poor and disabled Americans who rely on face-to-face service to navigate the complex disability benefits system.
At a testy House hearing in October, lawmakers from both parties pressed a top Social Security official to defend widespread failures in the disability program. Callers on the agency’s toll-free number were left on hold for an average of 36 minutes this year, up from 32 minutes last year, lawmakers noted at the hearing.
Lawmakers also cited data showing that more than 1 million Americans are still waiting for initial decisions on disability benefits that now take an average of 220 days, agency data show. That is almost double the processing time in 2019 and far above the 60 days Social Security itself defines as its minimum level of performance.
Saul, a wealthy former apparel executive and prominent Republican donor, had served on the board of a conservative think tank that called for cuts to Social Security benefits before taking on the leadership of SSA. He had clashed with the labor unions who accused him of using union-busting tactics and of clamping down on eligibility for disability benefits. But Saul’s firing as head of an independent agency — whose leadership is designed to cross administrations to minimize partisanship — also chafed many Senate Republicans, jeopardizing confirmation of a successor under Biden.