Jewish World Review Feb. 22, 2001 / 29 Shevat 5761
AARP's agenda at odds with Bush
OFTEN rated Washington's most powerful lobby, the AARP
assembled its official 2001 policy agenda last week - and its
main points are bad news for President Bush.
The AARP, formerly known as the American Association of
Retired Persons, doesn't make campaign contributions, doesn't
endorse candidates and rarely plays hardball. But it is definitely
putting its muscle behind priorities that preclude Bush's $1.6
trillion tax cut.
On other major issues, the group will resist any Social Security
reform that reduces guaranteed benefits and Medicare reforms
that force seniors into managed care. Moreover, AARP is
staunchly backing Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) push for
campaign finance reform.
Nothing in the group's new four-inch-thick agenda book
breathes a word of hostility toward Bush or his legislative
agenda. In fact, the AARP is rigorously non-partisan. It lays
down "principles," not hard positions. And its lobbyists always
"work with" people with whom they have differences.
However, with 34.5 million members who theoretically could be
mobilized in a crunch, the AARP usually gets heeded by
Congress on its issues.
It is also in the process of retooling itself - the name change is
part of it - to expand its influence. The organization wants to
be the voice not only for 35 million "seniors" over 65 but for the
78 million-strong baby-boom generation that is gradually turning
In major magazines and on television, the group is "rebranding"
itself with ads featuring vigorous-looking 50-plus business
owners, environmentalists, educators and rock climbers rather
than "retired persons."
The organization just launched a glossy new magazine, My
Generation, sent free to those ages 50 to 55. Its redesigned
standby, Modern Maturity, goes to members over 55.
The remaking of the AARP is a project initiated by the group's
13-year executive director, Horace Deets, who is retiring next
January. A nationwide search is under way for his successor.
One internal candidate is Bill Novelli, who sold his powerhouse
public relations firm, Porter Novelli, in 1990 to start a second
career in public service, working first at CARE and then leading
the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
Novelli has been in charge of the AARP's advocacy and public
affairs activities for 13 months and envisions the group
becoming "the No. 1 organization in the country working for
social change," including better education, upgraded standards
for long-term care facilities, and tax credits for long-term care
As part of Deets' reorganization, the AARP is establishing offices
in all 50 states, up from 22, to lobby legislatures and stay in
touch with local groups.
Only 10 percent of the AARP's $450 million budget is spent on
lobbying and advocacy - still a huge amount. The rest goes to
volunteer and service work.
For four years running, the AARP has headed Fortune magazine's
list of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, beating out
such groups as the National Rifle Association, the National
Federation of Independent Business, the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee, the AFL-CIO and the Association of Trial
Lawyers of America.
The AARP's clout-wielding reputation is partly based on a
mistaken legend. In 1988 the organization backed so-called
"catastrophic" prescription drug coverage for seniors, which
But well-off seniors and those with pre-existing drug coverage
raged against the mandatory program for its increased
premiums, famously banging on the car of then-Ways and
Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chief sponsor of the
The AARP's board and Washington office urged that the program
be kept alive, but Congress got scared and repealed it in 1989
under massive pressure from rank-and-file seniors, many of
them AARP members.
That was evidence of the power of the membership, though,
and AARP lobbyists bring it silently to bear when they visit
Members to talk about their issues.
Last week the AARP's board decided that the group's "principles"
this year would include "balanced" use of the federal budget
surplus, with enough money available for a Medicare prescription
drug benefit, expanded health insurance for children and new
education spending as to preclude Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut.
Moreover, the group wants tax cuts to be targeted - reducing
(though not eliminating) the inheritance tax, providing a credit
for caregivers and expanding IRAs - rather than across the
board, as Bush proposes.
The AARP will support Bush's idea of a Social Security
commission - but oppose the kind of partial privatization
proposals he backed in the campaign, "carve outs," which called
for a reduction of guaranteed benefits. The AARP favors a new
voluntary savings plan being added to Social Security.
It's not clear where Bush will end up on Medicare, but the AARP
prefers a much more costly drug benefit than Bush seemed to
favor in the campaign and wants to keep traditional
fee-for-service Medicare, not push seniors into HMOs.
The AARP has a genteel atmosphere about it that fits right in
with Bush's less confrontational Washington. But their
differences leave them with a lot of "working with" to
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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