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Biden pick for Social Security chief OK’d by Senate panel

Agency without a Senate-confirmed commissioner for over two years

Martin O’Malley, nominee to be commissioner of the Social Security Administration, testifies during his Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on Nov. 2.
Martin O’Malley, nominee to be commissioner of the Social Security Administration, testifies during his Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on Nov. 2. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Martin O’Malley’s nomination to lead the Social Security Administration won bipartisan support from a Senate panel on Tuesday, likely teeing up the first confirmed leader of the agency in over two years.

The Senate Finance Committee approved O’Malley, the former Democratic presidential hopeful and Maryland governor, 17-10, in vote held off the Senate floor during a morning vote series. Three Republicans voted with all Democrats in favor of O’Malley.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said during the panel’s executive session ahead of Tuesday’s vote that the Social Security position is about service and not politics, a sentiment that O’Malley reflects. He said O’Malley will need to address long wait lines, red tape, outdated technology and a struggling workforce at the SSA.

“I base my support for Martin O’Malley on the fact that every single time we have talked he has emphasized one matter and one matter only, and that is service above politics,” Wyden said.

Republican Finance panel members who crossed the aisle to back O’Malley included Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

Tillis said he’d gotten calls offering rave reviews of O’Malley, including from a conservative governor, and understood that he’d be willing to listen to both sides of an issue and focus on efficiency at the SSA.

Tillis also said he believed O’Malley would be a good expert to advise lawmakers as they face Social Security’s financial shortfall that will make the program unable to fully pay benefits in about a decade, according to estimates.

“He has a very systematic method I think to his approach, which I think will serve him well at the Social Security Administration,” Tillis said.

Still, 10 Republicans voted against O’Malley’s nomination, including the Finance Committee’s top Republican, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, who largely cited Biden administration-related concerns rather than O’Malley’s record.

Crapo pointed to the White House’s decision to fire Trump-appointed commissioner Andrew Saul more than two years ago, saying it politicized the SSA and sets a future precedent for regularly removing the agency’s head in new administrations.

[White House removes top Social Security officials]

The Senate can now take up O’Malley’s nomination on the floor. If that vote is successful, it would mean the SSA would have a confirmed leader for the first time in over two years since Saul’s removal in July 2021, years before his six-year term was set to expire.

SSA frequently works under an acting commissioner, and O’Malley would be the first confirmed commissioner nominated by a Democratic president since the Clinton administration.

O’Malley brings a political background not far from Washington. He was mayor of Baltimore and then governor of Maryland from 2007-2015, and he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who represents Maryland, said during the executive session Tuesday that O’Malley introduced individual accountability and performance measures for employees as Baltimore mayor, which generated progress in city services. Cardin said O’Malley would similarly demand better customer service at the SSA.

SSA commissioners typically serve a six-year term, so O’Malley could be at the agency’s helm for a significant amount of time in the lead-up to a crucial moment for Social Security. The trust fund that pays for Social Security benefits is expected to run too low on funds to pay them in full in about a decade, and some lawmakers are already discussing how to solve the coming fiscal shortfall.

Tillis said Tuesday that senators need to discuss means-testing benefits — or reducing them for some higher-income recipients — how to deal with inflation adjustments and other issues as lawmakers look to overhaul the program and avoid insolvency in the coming years.

Wyden raised another issue, saying he’d work with Crapo on addressing mistaken overpayments. When retirees accidentally receive higher checks than they’re due, later benefits may be cut to make up the difference, which Wyden said could be life-altering.

Tillis, who has backed Biden administration nominees and shown an interest in aiding bipartisan talks since joining Finance this year, won Wyden’s recognition for his work. Wyden invited him to weigh in on the effort to address overpayments, citing his approach to the committee this year.

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