"Deemed Widows" and "German Reparations" were two minor provisions in a deficit-reduction bill loaded with multibillion-dollar programs. They are also examples of how Congress sometimes takes care of small numbers of powerless people with nowhere else to turn.
The "Deemed Widows" provision was backed by, among others, former secretary of health, education and welfare Arthur S. Flemming, who heads the Save Our Security coalition that works to improve and protect the Social Security system.
It will help as many as 5,000 people, mainly older women, at a cost of $46 million over five years. It was part of a package of Social Security provisions initially approved by the House Social Security subcommittee, headed by Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), last spring, and pushed in the Senate by Sens. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), David Pryor (D-Ark.), John Heinz (R-Pa.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).
The provision was designed to take care of what many considered a cruel injustice, which even the courts have criticized but felt powerless to set aside without a change in the law.
It involved cases where a person, typically a woman (but the same rule will apply to men) got married, lived with a spouse for years, even had children. But when the spouse retired or died, and the person applied for the Social Security benefit due a wife or husband, or widow or widower, the Social Security Administration discovered that they had not been legally married. As a result, there was no eligibility for a benefit, even if it was the only source of income in old age.
A summary of court proceedings distributed by supporters of the provision included the case of Hilda and Roland Dwyer as an illustration of the problem. They were married in 1945, and Roland Dwyer had told his new spouse that he and his first wife had been divorced. When he died 31 years later, Hilda sought a widow's Social Security benefit, which SSA granted but then terminated.
The SSA said Roland Dwyer and his first wife never had been legally divorced, and that the first wife had applied for the benefits and was entitled to them by law. The court said that it could do nothing because its hands were tied by statutory language, but sent a copy of its opinion to Congress, suggesting, in effect, that it change the law.
The "Deemed Widows" provision does that. In cases where a person entered a good-faith, apparently legal, marriage, only to find out that the spouse's earlier marriage had not really been dissolved, the second marriage is deemed to be valid for the purpose of Social Security spouse's and widow's (or widower's) benefits. Both the first marriage partner and the second can get benefits.
The provision was initially opposed by Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), on the grounds, aides said, that a bill to reduce the federal deficit should not be creating new spending programs. But in the final compromise bill, it was accepted.
"German Reparations," a much smaller provision, was sponsored by Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) after receiving a letter from a constituent about a friend whose income was low and whose nursing home costs were being paid by Medicaid. The writer said the government was taking away from the nursing home resident the payments being made by the government of West Germany as compensation to that person for World War II persecution of Jews.
Medicaid was taking the money to help cover its costs for the person's nursing home bills. Weiss felt that was unfair, since the payments were not normal income but compensation for serious harm done the person during the Nazi period.
Weiss also argued that compensation payments made to Vietnam War victims of Agent Orange and to Japanese Americans illegally interned on the West Coast in World War II are not subject to the same treatment. These payments are disregarded in determining how much the individual would have to contribute out of pocket for Medicaid nursing home care.
Backed by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over Medicaid, Weiss's plea for a change in the rules was put into the deficit-reduction bill.
The provision doesn't affect many people, a few hundred at most, said an aide to Weiss, and the cost is modest -- a maximum $4 million over the next four years.