The Behind-The-Scenes Campaign For The Next Social Security Commissioner

Former Rep. Donna Shalala, a White House aide and a Social Security expert are all up for the job.
Former Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) is the highest-profile name in the mix to lead the Social Security Administration following President Joe Biden’s ouster of a Republican appointee earlier this summer.
Former Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) is the highest-profile name in the mix to lead the Social Security Administration following President Joe Biden’s ouster of a Republican appointee earlier this summer.
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An aide to President Joe Biden on labor issues is among the top contenders to lead the Social Security Administration, though he faces competition from a longtime expert on the agency and a high-profile former member of Congress.

Seth Harris, a former deputy labor secretary who is now a member of the National Economic Council, is one of the leading contenders for the post, according to multiple sources, alongside former Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who was secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration; and Social Security Works President Nancy Altman. All three have engaged in a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to win support from members of Congress and unions.

The top post at the agency overseeing the nation’s largest safety net program is open after Biden decided to fire Andrew Saul, President Donald Trump’s appointee, earlier this summer. Sources cautioned that the process is just beginning and other contenders for the post could emerge.

The Social Security Administration is a big agency, and the commissioner position matters both for its role leading a massive workforce and for the responsibility for the tens of millions of Americans who receive monthly retirement and disability benefits. Under Saul, the agency pursued disability benefit cuts and battled with the unions representing its workers.

The only public endorsement in the contest to succeed Saul so far has come from the National Organization for Women, which backed Altman earlier this month.

“The best ‘man’ for the job and the best pick overall to head up the Social Security Administration is a woman, and that woman is Nancy Altman,” NOW President Christian Nunes said in a statement.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who chairs a key subcommittee overseeing Social Security in the House, has also quietly weighed in with a letter to Biden backing Altman.

“​​She recognizes that her top priority will be to deliver the first-class service the public deserves and indeed, has paid for and used to receive. She is committed to restoring the morale of the workforce and restoring the confidence of the American people in the future of Social Security,” Larson wrote in a letter to the president obtained by HuffPost. “Most important to me, she is committed to increasing the economic security of the American people.”

As president of Social Security Works, Altman advocated against retirement benefits cuts that President Barack Obama had supported as part of a phantom “Grand Bargain” with Republicans. Obama eventually came around to Altman’s position ― one of the early signs that Democrats would once again embrace their New Deal roots. (Social Security Works also vigorously advocated for Biden to fire Saul.)

Harris, by contrast, has no obvious background in Social Security. But his deep government experience and clout in the White House ― as well as with key unions ― makes him a contender for the job.

Harris spent years at the Labor Department before rising to deputy labor secretary in 2009. His work carrying out the Obama administration’s policies on workplace safety, wage theft and other labor issues drew plenty of praise from the left. The Economic Policy Institute wrote regarding Harris’s breadth of experience that it was “unlikely that anyone so knowledgeable will ever serve” at the agency again.

Harris, however, has fallen out of favor with some progressives since then. After leaving the Obama administration, he did a stint at Dentons, a management-side law firm, where he was counsel on labor, public policy and regulation, and he had his own firm, Seth Harris Law & Policy, where he offered clients “strategic advising.”

Harris also drew criticism for a 2015 paper that he co-wrote with economist Alan Kreuger on the classification of gig workers as “independent contractors” rather than employees. Harris and Kreuger proposed the creation of a third category, the “independent worker,” which would entitle gig workers to some traditional labor protections but not others. Critics viewed the proposal as an unnecessary concession to the likes of Uber and Lyft.

Harris still has admirers in labor circles, however. During the Biden transition, he was rumored to be a candidate for labor secretary, a post that ultimately went to former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Bloomberg Law reported that former AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who died earlier this month, had backed Harris for the labor advisor job he ultimately landed at the White House.

Shalala clearly has the largest political profile of the contenders. The longtime university administrator headed the Department of Health and Human Services during the Bill Clinton administration from 1993 to 2001 and served a single term in Congress representing a district in South Florida before losing in 2020.

Altman is the clear policy expert among the leading choices: She is a protégè of past Social Security Commissioner Robert Ball, plus she’s the author of multiple books about the program and is a current member of the Social Security advisory board.

But the unions whose endorsements will be key to the White House’s decision aren’t necessarily focused on policy issues such as the annual inflation adjustment for retirement benefits.

Ralph de Juliis, president of AFGE’s Council 220, which represents many Social Security workers, said the union’s priorities are renegotiating its contract and maintaining some form of telework privileges that Saul had curtailed before the pandemic, even though he himself rarely came to the office. De Juliis also wants the next commissioner to fire more holdovers from the previous administration.

De Juliis said he had a phone call with Shalala earlier this month and personally favors her, though he said the union hasn’t yet decided whether to make an endorsement.

“She has experience running HHS,” de Juliis said. “She had to deal with embedded political appointees from the last administration.”

Altman declined to comment. Neither Harris nor Shalala responded to a request for comment.

Two sources also said James Roosevelt Jr., a descendant of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a Democratic National Committee official, is also a contender for the job, though he’s seen as having less of a chance than the other potential appointees.

In an email, Roosevelt ― who worked as an assistant commissioner of the Social Security Administration in the Clinton administration ― confirmed his interest, saying he would be “honored” if Biden selected him.

Correction: This story originally said Trumka backed Harris for labor secretary. In fact, he backed him for labor advisor at the White House.