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This Isn't the Old AARP

Leaders betray their members by lobbying for Medicare drug bill

November 24, 2003|Dale Van Atta

Here's the deal: If you're over 50, for just $12.50 a year, AARP will give you a magazine and newsletter subscription, as well as allow you to "receive discounts on car rentals, lodging, cruises" and a host of other wonderful things. And at the same time, it will argue for your most vital political interests in Washington. You're a Republican? Democrat? Anarchist? It doesn't matter; it knows what you want. At AARP, one lobby fits all.

The character of the group formerly known as the American Assn. of Retired Persons is once again of significant interest after AARP on Oct. 14 strongly endorsed the largely Republican-written $400-billion Medicare prescription drug bill.

Some suspect that its endorsement, and follow-up $7-million advertising campaign over the last several days, may tip the scales in favor of the landmark bill. After all, AARP is the second-largest membership organization in the United States after the Catholic Church, claiming more than 35 million members. Who can stand in the way of that juggernaut? The answer: any self-respecting Congress member who uses common sense and does a little homework.

AARP was founded in 1958 by retired California high school principal Ethel Percy Andrus for the primary purpose of selling health insurance to the elderly. Andrus eventually added popular discounts on hotel and motel stays, car rentals and airlines. The nonprofit AARP amassed $636 million in revenue last year, with travel discounts remaining the biggest draw for soliciting and retaining members. "AARP is a group of people bound together only by a common love of travel discounts," former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) used to say. He wasn't far off.

It was in the 1960s that the organization began taking major positions on legislation. But other than being over 50 and sharing a common desire for AARP discounts, nothing knits together the politically and generationally diverse dues-paying membership of about 24 million. (AARP inflates its total by 11 million or so by giving spouses free memberships.)

Most of the members neither know the positions that AARP's paid Washington lobbyists push nor fully understand that simply paying dues for discounts gives AARP the right to use their names in vain.

AARP's CEO, William Novelli, doesn't let their ignorance of his staff's "representation" of them deter him from using the sheer force of membership numbers to bully Congress.

Even after thousands of members last week phoned, wrote letters and sent angry e-mails about AARP's supporting the Medicare bill to the group's swank $130-million, 10-story headquarters in Washington, Novelli was unrepentant about his claims to speak for them. Appearing on a CNBC "Capital Report" television show Tuesday evening, he acknowledged the first signs of membership rebellion, then added: "I really feel unfazed by it. I think we're doing the right thing."

Novelli knows from AARP's confidential historical records that he can dismiss the membership uprising sure to follow in the coming months because the organization has weathered such storms without apology before.

In 1994, AARP's Washington policy people practically salivated at the prospect of passing Bill and Hillary Clinton's health-care reform, only to see it wither on the congressional vine. When then-House Majority Whip Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) co-sponsored a bill attempting to resurrect the Clinton initiative, AARP's board of directors endorsed it. Within 48 hours, AARP headquarters received 28,000 mostly hostile calls, with another 21,000 members unable to get through the jammed phone lines. An internal AARP study found that of 133,788 people who contacted them about the endorsement, only 318 specifically supported AARP's position.

No matter, the study's conclusion implied, a million or more members might be lost but old folks had a tendency to forget, which would work in AARP's favor.

"The relevance of this issue may diminish with time. That is, for members coming up for renewal at a future date, their recall and importance of the issue may not be as high," the study said.

A few years later, George H.W. Bush practically sneered when the subject of Washington AARP leadership came up in a talk with me. When he opposed their positions, the former president recalled, "they'd be all over me like ugly on an ape. They were formidable."

But what most infuriated the elder Bush was that they were illegitimate "self-appointed" representatives who became "the voice of whatever the hell they wanted" -- whether the membership wanted it or not.

The first President Bush had reasons for some harsh feelings because, despite claims of "nonpartisanship," most of AARP's positions after legislative policy director John Rother was hired in 1984 were of a largely liberal Democrat bent.

When the Democratic leadership and most of the Democratic presidential candidates last week heatedly denounced AARP's support of the Republican Medicare bill, it was with the shock and bitterness of friends betrayed.

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