Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley cleared a key hurdle in his nomination to become the next leader of the Social Security Administration.

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee voted 17-10 on Tuesday to advance O’Malley’s nomination to a vote by the full Senate.

O’Malley has pledged to improve problems plaguing the administration, from poor employee morale to subpar customer service to errors in payments made to beneficiaries.

O’Malley’s supporters touted his experience as the Democratic mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, when he focused on defining and measuring problems — first with CitiStat meetings, later with StateStat — ranging from homicides to water quality.

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“There were improvements, steady improvements, at each of these meetings because the mayor was directly involved in accountability,” Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said at a hearing on Tuesday before the vote.

Cardin said he’s confident O’Malley “will have the responsible parties meeting with him personally with charts. He loves charts.”

President Joe Biden picked O’Malley for the challenging job this summer, saying that O’Malley would use his expertise in public administration to make Social Security more effective.

About 67 million Americans receive benefits from Social Security, including retired workers and people with disabilities.

The administration has nearly 60,000 employees, both at the headquarters in Woodlawn and across the country. The administration has been without a leader since 2021, when Biden dismissed Andrew Saul, who had been appointed by former President Donald J. Trump.

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Social Security is expected to run short of money to pay benefits in 10 years, a problem that lawmakers are yet to resolve. The agency also has low worker morale, antiquated technology and long wait times for people seeking help. Lawmakers have told stories about constituents waiting a long time to get help receiving benefits and about those who mistakenly were paid too much in benefits, and were forced to pay them back.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, said Tuesday that O’Malley wouldn’t have been his first choice, preferring someone more conservative. But he said he was impressed with O’Malley’s “systematic approach” to governing and concluded he’s “one of the best candidates the administration could put forward.”

Still, some Republican senators have seemed skeptical about putting a former political partisan who once ran for president into an administrative role at a key agency.

During questioning from senators earlier this month, O’Malley drew a distinction between Congress’ role in setting Social Security policies and his role in implementing those policies and running the administration. O’Malley noted that it’s up to Congress to determine how to fix the funding shortfall, not the Social Security commissioner.

“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.

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Three Republicans joined the Senate Finance Committee’s Democrats in voting for O’Malley. All 10 votes against O’Malley came from Republicans.

The next step for O’Malley is a vote by the full Senate; it’s not clear yet when that may happen. Democrats hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate.

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County. 

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