HuffPost reported last week that the Biden administration is considering a few unusual names for the long-delayed nomination of Administrator of the Social Security Administration. On one hand, there’s Nancy Altman, the President of Social Security Works who has fought for the economic security of seniors and Social Security recipients for years. She has written three books on the history and economics of Social Security, and currently serves on the Social Security Advisory Board, which provides oversight of the program. In other words, she is eminently qualified for the job.
On the other hand are two well-connected political insiders, both of whom Revolving Door Project has a history with: Seth Harris and Donna Shalala.
Harris is the former Acting Labor Secretary under Obama who later turned to shadow lobbying and legal work for union-busting BigLaw firms. As I wrote for the American Prospect last October, Harris is one of the intellectual architects of Prop 22, the California law which protects companies like Uber and Lyft from having to recognize their workers as full employees entitled to the minimum wage and benefits. That’s actually a Social Security issue, too: now-Interior Secretary Deb Haaland championed a bill in 2019 to require gig economy companies to pay their workers’ Social Security and Medicare taxes, since firms don’t have to pay those taxes for independent contractors (which is how gig economy firms misclassify their workers.)
Harris’ work has rarely touched on Social Security directly, but in his own words, he believes the old retirement formula of Social Security and pensions “is largely gone,” and at least part of the solution involves simply having people work longer. As he said at a Brookings Institution panel in 2019, “we should be encouraging some people to work more unless we are going to really dramatically transform the system that we have. We have transformed it. But let me also say, we’ve transformed it to favor more work, not to favor less work.”
For her part, Shalala was a first-term Representative from Florida when the Revolving Door Project helped expose that she hadn’t filed ethics paperwork regarding her personal stock holdings, just as she was appointed to a board overseeing CARES Act funding. That funding could have benefited firms in which Shalala was invested. She ultimately, predictably, lost reelection.
What makes an unremarkable one-time Congresswoman qualified to lead one of the largest and most popular benefit programs in the federal government? Shalala’s backers point to her eight years as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. But that’s an inauspicious credential for the would-be head of a benefits program: Clinton infamously campaigned to “end welfare as we know it,” a crusade against the poor and misfortuned which utterly failed to do anything but make the government less caring to the most vulnerable, as Bryce Covert documented at the New Republic.
Shalala’s HHS work touched Social Security most directly when she appointed the 1994 Advisory Council on Social Security. The Advisory Council originally was the body which provided oversight of Social Security, but was later replaced by today’s Social Security Advisory Board. The bipartisan board Shalala picked ultimately came back with three different recommendations for making Social Security less generous, in the name of balancing budgets. The proposals included taxing some benefits; investing Social Security in stocks and equities; and gradually moving the system over to a set of individual investment accounts, similar to switching out a pension for a 401(k). None of these proposals were ultimately adopted.
And why should they have been? As my CEPR colleagues Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot have demonstrated, the whole panic over baby boomers bankrupting Social Security has always been a solution (weakening the program) in search of a problem. Predictions that the system will run out of money depend on unreasonably low expectations of economic growth, and even if this unlikely outcome occurs, the shortfall would be about the same as historical increases to the U.S. military budget during times of peace.
If Shalala is under consideration for the job, though, it’s worth asking her if she’d support the kinds of moves proposed by her Advisory Council now. In any case, given a choice between someone who’s dedicated her career to fighting for Social Security recipients, a corporate ally with only a passing interest in the program, and an ethics law violator, Biden shouldn’t have a hard time choosing.