Powerful coalition guards entitlements as lawmakers weigh spending plans

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

WASHINGTON — A television ad that aired briefly in August 2012 stands as a warning today for lawmakers who want to cut Social Security and Medicare.

A man in a dark suit acting as Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, then the Republican Party's vice presidential candidate, pushes a wheelchair carrying a panicked-looking grandmother to the edge of a cliff. He dumps her over the rocky ledge. "Is America Beautiful without Medicare?" the ad asks.

The commercial, produced by the Democratic-aligned Agenda Project, ran only a few times in Ohio, Florida and Colorado during last year's presidential campaign. Its enduring imagery illustrates the power of the lobbying coalition that guards the health and financial programs for seniors.

The effort is led by AARP and its 37 million members. They're joined by unions and Democratic-activist groups such as MoveOn.org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and the New York-based Agenda Project and its action fund.

Lawmakers are "terrified" of the pro-seniors lobby, said Steve Bell, a former Senate Republican budget adviser.

"They have everybody on warning all the time," said Bell, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit based in Washington. "The 30-second commercial of you pushing grandma in her wheelchair over the cliff is ready to go."

A congressional budget panel held its second public meeting Wednesday as lawmakers work toward a self-imposed Dec. 13 deadline to present a longer-term tax and spending proposal that would reduce the nation's deficit.

Pro-seniors groups, including the Alliance for Retired Americans and Social Security Works, Wednesday delivered to Congress a petition signed by 656,353 people against entitlement cuts.

"No grand bargain in exchange for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits," the document says.

Those three programs are ripe targets because together they make up almost half of federal spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Lawmakers have shunned cuts because of concern about a political backlash. That calculation shifted as the potential for a bipartisan deal — with shared blame or reward — emerged in talks between President Barack Obama and House Republicans. Those negotiations collapsed.

Congressional budget conference leaders today are focusing on spending cuts outside of those programs.

"A great number of entitlement programs, mandatory programs, are not Social Security and Medicare," Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican budget negotiator, said on Oct. 30.

David Certner, director of legislative policy for AARP, said seniors' groups can't let down their guard.

"It seems pretty clear that Medicare and Social Security, if not on the table, are always on a side table," he said.

Proponents of reducing entitlement spending say AARP and its allies are winning.

"The opponents on the other side have had a bigger voice," R. Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in June.

A bipartisan commission led by former Senator Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, and Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, in December 2010 recommended a 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. Their report predicted an onslaught of special-interest lobbying to obliterate the plan.

"And that's exactly what has happened," Simpson said in an interview. "It's a blood-lust. The lobbyists are going right to the congresspeople and saying if you mess with this or that, we'll light a torch during your next election."

Those threats are most compelling in midterm elections, such as the 2014 races when House and Senate candidates will face an electorate in which seniors have more influence. Voters age 65 and older comprised 21 percent of the electorate in 2010, compared with 16 percent in the 2012 presidential race, according to exit-polling data.

It's also a growing voting bloc. U.S. census data shows the senior population at 13.7 percent of the population last year, compared with 12.4 percent in 2000. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates seniors' ranks will rise to 19 percent of the population by 2030.

Proposals for spending cuts include raising from 65 the Medicare eligibility age, requiring the wealthy to pay more for some health coverage and trimming Social Security cost-of-living increases. Those all appeared in the Simpson-Bowles plan, and Obama has incorporated the latter two concepts in several budget proposals.

AARP opposes them all — and so do the group's members.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll of Americans older than 50 conducted in August and September found that 62 percent object to changing the way Social Security benefits are calculated so that cost-of-living increases are smaller, and 58 percent object to raising the age at which people can begin receiving Social Security benefits. More older Americans oppose rather than favor reducing Social Security benefits for seniors with higher incomes, 44 percent to 41 percent.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told attendees at an Oct. 30 conference of Social Security defenders that the program is "more popular than apple pie and the Fourth of July."

Lake concluded her presentation with a warning shot to Congress: "This is a voting issue in 2014."

Beyond its own influence, the senior lobbying coalition benefits from a polarized Washington where Republicans are opposing tax increases and Democrats are blocking entitlement spending cuts unless both are part of a broad fiscal agreement.

Yet the mere suggestion that a revision of Medicare or Social Security is advancing prompts a deluge of angry phone calls and e-mails orchestrated by interest groups.

"Democrats are going to have to give on entitlement reform," Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat involved in budget negotiations, said in an Oct. 20 interview on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Two days later, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a Washington-based political group that raised and spent more than $1 million in the first six months of this year, blasted an email to its 950,000 members, excerpting Warner's comments.

"We need to pressure Senator Warner and other Democrats on their home turf to stop pushing for a Grand Bargain that cuts Social Security," the email said in bold-face type before asking for a $3 donation.

During the 16-day partial government shutdown last month, AARP monitored talks in Congress aimed at finding an agreement to open the government, while lawmakers in 18 states were warned in radio spots that "seniors are no bargaining chip."

Warner "is aware" of the retirement group's efforts and has received "several dozen" phone calls from constituents carrying the message, said Kevin Hall, the senator's spokesman.

AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, is one of the largest nonprofits in the U.S. Based in Washington, the group reported revenue last year of $1.2 billion, according to its tax forms. It invested $174 million of that into legislative activities such as state- and federal- level lobbying and public policy advocacy.

AARP doesn't make endorsements or directly fund races. Its advocacy spending does include campaign-style radio, television and mailed advertisements that highlight candidates' positions on Social Security, Medicare and other seniors-focused issues. One of AARP's top contractors last year was GMMB, a political advertising firm that worked on Obama's re-election. AARP reported on its tax forms paying the firm $25 million.

Similar spending has continued this year, amid several more rounds of congressional budget negotiations.

Seniors have been "engaged for two years now" and yet it remains "fairly easy to galvanize members to act," AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond said at the Oct. 30 conference on Capitol Hill.

"Frankly, I've been very worried that we were going to have show-up fatigue," she said. "That hasn't been the case."

Joining AARP in the messaging battle are unions, other seniors groups and Democratic-aligned political committees.

The Alliance for Retired Americans and unions mobilized 2,800 participants in 50 cities in a July 2 action against the "chained CPI," a proposal to calculate Social Security benefits based on a slower-growing version of the Consumer Price Index.

Seniors linked arms to form human chains outside congressional district offices while lawmakers were in their home states for the July 4 holiday. Some participants draped themselves in homemade construction-paper chains.

The alliance, a nonprofit based in Washington, began as a group for retired union workers and has since broadened its membership to other seniors. It claims 4 million members and raised $7.5 million last year, according to tax documents, investing $2.6 million into government and political affairs.

"We can put sneakers on the ground," said Richard Fiesta, the alliance's director of government and political affairs. "It works."

_ With assistance from Heidi Przybyla in Washington.