Social Security will likely have a new boss soon. Here's how he wants it to run better.

The man who is expected to become the new boss of Social Security once aimed to expand the program. Now he just wants to fix its flaws.

In 2015, Martin O’Malley ran for president with an array of left-of-center positions including a plan to expand Social Security that was notable for aligning him closer to Bernie Sanders than to bipartisan plans for the safety net.

Eight years later, O’Malley is on the precipice of taking the helm of the Social Security Administration thanks to an entirely different focus reflective of the challenged status of the program as well as political realities in Washington.

O’Malley says his No. 1 job if confirmed — which is now widely expected to happen after he received a bipartisan backing this week — will be to revitalize current operations for the agency’s almost 60,000 employees who have been without a permanent leader for over two years.

“Today, for all its historic strengths, we must acknowledge that Social Security faces a customer service crisis,” said O’Malley during his confirmation hearing before listing a range of ways that the agency was falling short.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) put it even more directly this week during the hearing to advance O’Malley’s nomination, saying “this position above all else is about service, not politics.”

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 02: Former Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-MD), President Biden's nominee to be the next Commissioner of Social Security, arrives to his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on November 02, 2023 in Washington, DC. If confirmed O'Malley would replace former Commissioner Andrew Saul who was fired from office by President Joe Biden in 2021. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, President Biden’s nominee to be the next commissioner of Social Security, arrives to his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Nov. 2. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) (Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images)

The former Maryland governor’s message of focusing on the nuts and bolts of the program — and leaving decisions about addressing a looming insolvency for the program to lawmakers — appears set to work.

The Senate Finance Committee voted to advance his nomination to the Senate floor this week with all Democrats and three Republicans voting in favor of his nomination.

“His willingness to hear both sides of an issue … will serve him well in the Social Security Administration,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), one of those GOP yes votes. O’Malley is expected to receive a full Senate vote in the coming weeks.

The agency has been without a Senate-confirmed leader since 2021. That’s when President Biden fired then-Commissioner Andrew Saul, who had been Donald Trump’s pick to lead the agency. The Biden administration charged that Saul undermined the program.

Dr. Kilolo Kijakazi, who previously served as a deputy commissioner, has been in charge at the agency headquarters in Woodlawn, Md., as acting commissioner in recent years.

Customer service issues that are ‘not acceptable’

What all sides agree is that customer service at the Social Security Administration has been at a low ebb in recent years.

O’Malley pointed out a range of statistics during his confirmation hearing that are rooted, he says, in an agency that has the same levels of staffing it had in 1995 but with 50% more beneficiaries relying on the program’s trust funds.

The nominee pointed out this month how the agency has an average hold time of 37 minutes and applying for Social Security’s disability benefits (and accompanying appeals) can be a whopping 2-year-long process.

“This is not acceptable,” says O’Malley, who has put forth an idea to make the administration more efficient with a performance management system.

He hopes that a focus on accountability and feedback every two weeks — which he says was the practice during his time as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland — will both improve employee morale as well as customer service.

An American flag flutters in the wind next to signage for a United States Social Security Administration office in Burbank, California October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION)

A Social Security Administration office in Burbank, Calif., seen in 2012. (Fred Prouser/REUTERS) (Fred Prouser / reuters)

Another pressing concern for the next administrator is around overpayment notices in recent years that the agency is still resolving.

The issue is that some Social Security recipients have allegedly been receiving wrongful notices to pay back money related to COVID-era stimulus checks. The agency’s rules are that COVID payments are not supposed to count towards Social Security’s benefit income limits, but an apparent snafu at the agency has led to notices being sent in error demanding repayments.

The issue has garnered the intense attention of senators like Wyden, who promises to meet with the Social Security administration every month until that and other issues are resolved.

An agency facing insolvency in 2034

The challenges awaiting O’Malley also include planning for a looming insolvency for the program in about a decade’s time.

A recent government trustees report found that Social Security will be in financial peril within a decade if Congress takes no action. The program only has the funds to continue paying out 100% of benefits through 2034. After that, benefits could be cut across the board by around 23%.

Talks among lawmakers to address the crisis collapsed this year and are not expected to be returned to in earnest until after the 2024 election.

Under questioning about his past Social Security activism — his 2015 campaign plan rejected GOP calls to raise the retirement age and instead looked to increase benefits — O’Malley said he jumped at the chance to be administrator precisely because it allowed him to step away from political debates.

He says he’d rather focus his energy on making “the trains run on time” at the agency.

“I don’t miss a lot of the aspects of running for office,” he joked about his time in electoral politics.

His eventual role in the debate around Social Security’s solvency remains to be seen, but observers hope that O’Malley’s likely confirmation will at least begin to alleviate some of the customer service issues in the months ahead.

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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