Seniors love AARP, and with good reason. Its website and magazine offer useful information for seniors on a host of subjects. Through AARP, discounts are available on everything from travel and dinner at Bonefish Grill to renting a truck. Medi-gap insurance or a credit card can be purchased through AARP. The organization advocates for seniors and particularly, as it asserts at its website, for keeping Social Security strong — although it always insists that it is strictly nonpartisan.
That’s why seniors were surprised to learn recently that AARP was a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization with links to the Koch brothers. ALEC advocates for the privatization of Social Security and Medicare and takes other positions contrary to the interests of America’s seniors. As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times points out, “ALEC has pushed for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which has saved Medicare enrollees millions of dollars by closing the Medicare drug benefit ‘donut hole.’ ALEC has opposed Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. It has targeted public pensions, pushing to cap benefits and shift workers toward defined contribution plans, which layer more market risk on individual workers’ shoulders.”
On August 5, following a public outcry, AARP announced on Facebook that it was leaving ALEC, while maintaining that ” We would never work against the interests of older Americans and our engagement with ALEC was NOT an endorsement of the organization’s policies, but an opportunity to engage with state legislators and advance our members’ priorities.”
AARP’s ALEC courtship may have roots in the attacks mounted by conservatives against the organization because of its support of the Affordable Care Act. Angry conservative members reportedly left AARP, and rival right-wing organizations saw their numbers grow. Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee issued a report critical of AARP, claiming it would benefit financially from passage of the ACA. By joining ALEC, AARP had not only an “opportunity to engage,” but also the chance to build bridges to powerful conservatives it had offended.
AARP may now have broken with ALEC, but here in New York’s 23rd congressional district, where Common Sense for Seniors is headquartered, we are represented by a Republican House Ways and Means Committee member, Tom Reed, who is still benefitting from AARP’s conservative courtship.
At its website, AARP features a heartwarming story by Reed about his childhood hardships and how important Social Security was to his family after his father died of a heart attack. (Only two members of Congress are featured here. The others are ordinary citizens.) In March, AARP issued a statement praising Reed for co-sponsoring the Credit for Caring Act, which would offer a tax credit to those who care for family members. This is a nice idea, but the bill has languished since its introduction in March and has little chance of passage in a Republican House devoted to budget cutting. On August 5, AARP’s New York Director Beth Finkel hosted a “tele-town hall” conference call on Social Security and Medicare with Tom Reed as her “special guest.” Earlier, Finkel and AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond had offered effusive praise to Reed for sponsoring portions of a transportation bill that seem to benefit pedestrians and cyclists, but amount to little more than exhortations and recommendations.
Despite AARP’s assertions that it is nonpartisan, voters could easily draw the conclusion that it is endorsing Tom Reed. A perceived de facto endorsement is not in the interests of seniors. As long as Reed’s Republicans control the House, the expansion of Social Security and the improvement of Medicare are going nowhere. Neither program will be put on a sound, long-term financial footing.
Seniors are right to fear that AARP has been intimidated by conservatives — another case in point, its current Take a Stand campaign, which asks that the presidential and congressional candidates state their positions on Social Security but fails to articulate what AARP’s positions are. This is not advocacy in the interest of seniors.
In New York’s 23rd, senior voters would be right to wonder if AARP has not only been intimidated, but also snookered by Tom Reed. Their interests would be best served by the election of a Democratic majority in the House. Democrats created Social Security and are its strongest defenders. Voters in the 23rd have an excellent Democratic candidate in the distinguished veteran, John Plumb.