It only took President Trump a scant 16 months to nominate someone to head the Social Security Administration (SSA), which oversees the Social Security program and Supplemental Security Income for some 67 million Americans. Trump’s nominee, Andrew M. Saul, is a New York businessman, Republican donor, and former chairman of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which administers the retirement plan for U.S. government employees.
The Social Security Administration has run without a confirmed, full-fledged director for the past five years. The Republican-led Senate refused to confirm President Obama’s nominee, who departed as acting commissioner after the Trump administration took office. President Trump dragged his feet making a nomination, leaving acting chief Nancy Berryhill to lead an agency struggling to provide customer service in the wake of draconian budget cuts.
Appearing before the House Social Security subcommittee in March, National Committee president Max Richtman said that SSA needed “strong leadership” to achieve its mission, and that a new commissioner should be nominated and confirmed. Now that President Trump has finally selected someone, what do we really know about him?
Though he served on the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board for nine years, Andrew Saul has no real public record – good or bad – when it comes to Social Security. But his alignment with Republican politics (he was a top fundraiser for George W. Bush, who famously tried to privatize Social Security) and his membership on the board of a right-wing think tank, The Manhattan Institute, is not encouraging.
We need look no further than the Manhattan Institute’s website to glean the organization’s position on Social Security. In an article entitled, The Social Security Façade, the Institute propagates rightist myths that the program is going bankrupt and will no longer be able to pay benefits when today’s young people retire. In other words, it employs the time-worn tactic of dividing the generations to undermine Social Security:
“Young Americans are stuck paying into programs that, absent reform, will only partially be there for their retirements – if they’re around at all.” – Manhattan Institute website
The Institute believes that current Social Security benefits “are simply too generous,” and goes on to spread another falsehood:
“These entitlement programs function not only as wealth transfers from the young to the old, but from the poor to the wealthy… today’s seniors have an average of 47 times the wealth of households headed by adults under the age of 35.” – Manhattan Institute website
To link Mr. Saul to the Manhattan Institute’s viewpoint is not ‘guilt by association.’ It’s perfectly fair to connect him with the right-wing agenda of the think tank whose board he served on for several years, especially absent a public record of his own views on Social Security.
All of this leads us to question whether this is the man that millions of seniors, disabled, survivors, and SSI beneficiaries – many struggling to keep their heads above water financially – want to rely on to administer their benefits. During his confirmation hearings (expected to take place in June), Senate committee members should press Saul on these crucial questions:
- Does he believe in the Social Security program that has worked so well for 83 years – or would he seek to undermine it by advocating privatization?
- Can he empathize with beneficiaries living on an average monthly benefit below $1,400 per month?
- Will he encourage Congress to continue restoring badly needed funding for the Social Security Administration?
- Would he support further closings of Social Security field offices?
- How would he improve SSA’s beleaguered customer service at a time when 10,000 Baby Boomers reach retirement age every day?
Saul’s answers should fill in some important blanks, and clarify the more troubling aspects of his background. We have seen the damage Trump’s more ideological nominees can do as head of EPA, the Department of Education, and the Department of the Interior, among others. Let’s make sure not to install one as commissioner of Social Security.