Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley pledged to improve customer service and reduce errors at the Social Security Administration as he was grilled Thursday during a confirmation hearing for the job as the administration’s commissioner.
“Social Security is the most far-reaching and important action of social and economic justice that the people of the United States of America have ever enacted for one another,” O’Malley told members of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.
But the Social Security Administration is plagued with problems, ranging from long wait times for phones to be answered to erroneous over-payments to beneficiaries — challenges that O’Malley said he’s eager to tackle.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that the dedicated, patriotic, hard-working men and women of the Social Security Administration of the United States of America are up to the moment, and so am I,” O’Malley said.
President Joe Biden tapped the former governor and mayor of Baltimore to be the next Social Security commissioner in July, saying that O’Malley would use his expertise in public administration to make Social Security more effective.
The Social Security Administration, headquartered in Woodlawn, has been leaderless since 2021, when Biden dismissed Andrew Saul, an appointee from former President Donald J. Trump who had refused the president’s request that he resign before his term as commissioner was up.
Though the Social Security Administration is an independent agency, courts have ruled that the president can pick his own leader and the agency responds to the squeeze of political pressure.
Social Security is facing critical challenges, as it’s expected to start running short of money to pay benefits in 10 years, and lawmakers are weighing solutions. The agency also has low worker morale, antiquated technology and long wait times for people seeking help.
About 67 million Americans receive benefits from Social Security, including retired workers and people with disabilities and their families. Social Security has about 60,000 employees, both at the headquarters and spread out at regional offices and field offices across the nation.
Over more than two hours of questioning, O’Malley — the former Democratic mayor of Baltimore, governor and 2016 presidential candidate — faced some challenging questions from Republican senators.
Some tried to pin down O’Malley’s position on how to fix Social Security’s long-term insolvency issue. O’Malley responded by saying that’s an issue for Congress and the president to resolve; he must only implement their solutions.
“My role is effective administration, executing the will of the president and Congress, improving services to people,” O’Malley said in response to questioning from Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.
O’Malley said he would ensure that lawmakers have appropriate data and information from Social Security necessary to evaluate their options.
A couple Republicans also focused on telework, alleging that workers doing their jobs from home aren’t as productive.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, suggested that when people don’t get their calls answered at Social Security, they may wonder if workers are at home on the couch watching soap operas. He said the teleworking situation feels “unaccountable.”
O’Malley allowed that there are challenges in striking a balance between in-person work and remote work, and noted that the private sector hasn’t figured it out, either. The proof, he said, will be whether Social Security workers will be able to hit goals for promptly answering phone calls and scheduling in-person meetings with applicants.
O’Malley faced gentler questions from Democratic committee members, who wanted him to expand on how he’d improve customer service and efficiency while reducing overpayment errors. They asked him to commit to supporting their efforts to pass laws to improve the agency.
O’Malley recalled his efforts as mayor and governor to set goals and hold regular meetings with managers to assess performance. As mayor, he launched CitiStat, which was the model for similar state programs when he became governor.
“Things that get measured are things that get done,” he said.
Too often, O’Malley said, government agencies only evaluate their work once a year, when it comes time to prepare the next year’s budget. He suggested check-ins every two weeks on realistic goals — or, as he put it, creating a “winnable game” for workers.
O’Malley had some help in making his case to senators. He brought in his mentor, former U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is still revered in the Capitol, with some senators gushing over her appearance in the committee room.
“Governor O’Malley knows how to work within budgetary lines, master technology … to put the right resources to the right people to do the job and — guess what? — measure performance not to castigate, but to motivate,” Mikulski said.
A vote on O’Malley’s confirmation hasn’t been scheduled yet. But he clearly won over the committee chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, who said O’Malley demonstrated “exactly what public service needs more of.”
“I want the American people to know I support your nomination,” Wyden said. “I support it strongly and I think you’re going to do a superb job.”