President Joe Biden has fired Andrew Saul from his post as head of the Social Security Administration, marking another win for Democrats. Saul had been appointed by Donald Trump, and during his time leading the Social Security operation, Saul garnered steep criticism over issues like his aggressive stance against unions and what some characterized as “an overzealous campaign to make disabled people reestablish their eligibility for benefits,” as The Washington Post put it. Besides Saul, his top deputy, David Black, is also departing, having resigned after a request to do so from top authorities. Saul refused a similar resignation request, leading to his Friday firing.
The White House itself had a list of grievances with Saul’s handling of the Social Security Administration (SSA), saying that he “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.”
Notably, Saul insisted to the Post that he would be returning to work the following Monday, refusing to accept the legitimacy of the president’s decision to fire him. Biden has already named Kilolo Kijakazi as the new acting leader of the Social Security Administration, however, and Saul’s antics seem almost certain to end in failure. Saul’s time as head of the Social Security Administration was originally slated to run until January 2025, but presidents have the authority to remove individuals from his position for cause.
Two relatively recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court bolster presidents’ powers to fire top officials. As explained by the Post, the court concluded that “a law protecting the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from presidential supervision violated the separation of powers,” and justices reached a similar, more recent conclusion regarding the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, ruling that the top housing official can be fired by the president.
At the time of that more recent ruling, Justice Elena Kagan observed that “a betting person might wager that the [Social Security Administration’s] removal provision is next on the chopping block.” As summarized by the law firm Gibson Dunn, the court concluded in that case that “[agencies] that execute federal law and are headed by a single Director, including financial regulators, cannot be “independent” of the President, but instead must be subject to the President’s constitutional duty to control the federal officers who assist the President in executing federal law.” The Biden administration seems to be going with the idea that such agencies include the Social Security Administration. The idea is that there is a “significant limitation on Congress’s ability to insulate agencies from presidential control,” Gibson Dunn adds, meaning that Congress can not interfere quite so extensively with the operations of the executive branch.