House and Senate Unanimous: No Social Security for Nazis

A sign reading “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free) is seen in January 2014 at the main gate of Auschwitz during ceremonies marking the 69th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation and commemorating victims of the Holocaust. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

A bill barring Nazi war criminals from collecting Social Security benefits was rapidly passed through the Senate and House this week, only a few weeks after a lengthy Associated Press investigation revealed the practice.

The U.S. Senate passed the "No Social Security for Nazis Act" with no amendment in a unanimous vote Thursday. The legislation would close a loophole that has allowed Nazi war criminals who have left the country to continue receiving Social Security payments. The House passed a companion bill, also unanimously with a 420-0 vote, on Tuesday. The Senate has sent the bill to President Barack Obama for his signature.

"We cannot allow Social Security benefits to continue flowing to those guilty of the worst atrocities in modern history," said Representative Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, earlier this week. Maloney had introduced similar legislation last month, the Nazi Social Security Benefits Termination Act of 2014. "Either bill would have been sufficient. I'm pleased that the House is taking action this week to finally stop these benefits from flowing to Nazi persecutors."

The two pieces of legislation surfaced in mid-November shortly after the Associated Press published an investigation that dug into the fact that Nazi war criminals who had been removed from the country were still receiving Social Security payments. It also examined the tactics used by the Justice Department that allowed the payments and the dynamic between the Justice Department, the Social Security Administration, the State Department, and the Clinton White House.

Less than two months elapsed between publication of the AP's investigation and the No Social Security for Nazis Act passing the House and the Senate. The process was "incredibly fast," says Allan Lichtman, a congressional expert and professor at American University.

"Usually the wheels of the Senate move about as fast as an old rusted locomotive, but this time it moved like a modern diesel," he says, predicting there were a handful of reasons for the unusually rapid progression from the AP investigation to legislative action and successful votes.

"This was something Democrats and Republicans could agree on at a time when they could agree on virtually nothing else," he says. In addition, he believes politicians wanted to get the votes on this bill out of the way during the lame-duck Congress rather than waiting for the new session. Finally, he says, "it's a win for everyone; being against Nazi war criminals is a win for every politician."

But apparently, this has not always been the case. John Callahan, then acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration, brought the matter up in 1997 during the Clinton administration.

"Social Security benefits cannot, and should not, be used as a bargaining tool," Callahan wrote in a memo in April 1997. The administration discussed making moves to close the loophole by stopping Social Security benefits to suspected Nazi perpetrators at the time of denaturalization, or when they were stripped of their American citizenship, rather than to coincide with a final deportation order, which could take years to obtain.

In some cases, as described in the AP investigation, a final deportation order was never obtained, and instead a suspected Nazi war criminal would leave the country voluntarily or as the result of a deal with the Justice Department, and thus keep their Social Security payments.

A decade and a half ago, the administration faced pressure from some perhaps unexpected players: the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors.

David Rising, one of the reporters in the AP investigation, tells Newsweek that the WJC argued at the time that the loophole allowed suspected Nazis to be removed more swiftly from the U.S.—where they could only be deported or denaturalized—to other countries, where they could be prosecuted for their war crimes.

In fact, the two groups "threatened to publicly accuse the administration of being soft on Nazi prosecutions if it went forward," according to the AP investigation. The matter was dropped. Two years later, U.S. Representative Bob Franks, R-New Jersey, introduced legislation to cut benefits to Nazis who left the country, but it too faced opposition and failed to pass.

The WJC has since reversed its stance. In a statement released two days after the AP investigation was published, the WJC said it stood with the Justice Department in the 1990s because it supported a hasty departure of Nazis, "a goal sought at the time by Holocaust survivors who did want to have erstwhile Nazis and Nazi collaborators living in their midst."

President of the WJC, Ronald S. Lauder, is quoted in the statement explaining the organization's change of heart:

The expectation was that most if not all the individuals in question would be prosecuted by the European countries to which they returned or where their alleged criminal activities had been committed. Sadly, this proved not to be the case. And we note with grave concern that other countries have also been paying social benefits to Nazi war criminals…

We continue to insist that all suspected Nazi criminals be put on trial. As US law does not allow for such trials in most cases, it is preferable that they take place in Germany, Austria, or in the respective suspects' other countries of origin.

There cannot and there should not be such a thing as legal closure when it comes to genocide, and we support the US authorities in their efforts to track down all suspected Nazi war criminals, no matter what their age is today, and to bring them justice. We owe it to the victims of the Shoah that this effort is pursued relentlessly and with perseverance.

Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the WJC, tells Newsweek that he hopes the present legislation will inspire other countries to follow suit denying benefits to Nazis and Nazi collaborators.

With the about-face of the WJC, and the absence of pressure of the kind put on the Clinton administration, the measure passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate.

The difference, Lichtman thinks, is that "in the past it conflicted with other anti-Nazi priorities such as the deportation. At this point it doesn't conflict with that objective," he says, since the number of suspected Nazis in the U.S. has dwindled over time, and the individuals highlighted in the AP investigation are already outside of the country.

"At least Republicans and Democrats can get together and agree that they are against Nazis," Lichtman says. "Maybe that will be the start of some more difficult agreements."

Rising, who worked on the AP investigation with Randy Herschaft and Richard Lardner intermittently starting in 2011, says that "all discussions in the past took place behind closed doors," referring to the efforts in the 1990s to close the loophole. "The goal was to put it in the public [domain] so people could make their own decisions about it."

As time passes, the remaining perpetrators of the Holocaust continue to age and die, and in a not-too-distant future, legislation like the No Social Security for Nazis Act will be moot. But it's still relevant today, Rising explains, because "war criminals from other conflicts could show up. This could apply to them as well," he says.

It would have been ideal if such action had been taken decades ago, says Rising. But "even though these guys are old and the victims are old," he says, there are still survivors out there, particularly those who were children during the war. "For them this is still a measure of justice."