Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Even if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down President Obama’s Health Care Reform law on Thursday, there are controversies regarding the process of making the bill that we had to pass to know what was in it that will continue. Georgia Congressman Phil Gingrey, along with Republican Senator Tom Coborn of Oklahoma have some questions for the American Association of Retired Persons, commonly known as AARP, regarding their efforts during the lead up to the bill passing Congress.
AARP bills itself as the preeminent organization representing the interests of Americans senior citizens. As more is learned about groups and industries that were able to carve out protections for their status quo in exchange for support, Republicans in Congress are attempting to determine if the group that was supposed to be protecting seniors’ interests were actually looking after the immediate self interests of the organization.
A letter sent Monday from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee to the AARP bluntly states that the organization is set to receive a $1 Billion dollar “windfall” because of the act’s passage over the next ten years, and directly questions AARP’s actions in lobbying for passage of the bill. Specifically, details are requested on lobbying efforts which conflict with public statements of neutrality, as well as statements that AARP members were generally split to supportive of the measure.
The letter included several examples of public statements versus quotes from internal communications on the same topics such as:
The official statement that “AARP has developed its positions independently based on what we believe is in the best interest of our members and all people age 50+”. Internal emails showed calls from members were against the bill 14-1. Other emails indicate that despite a close working relationship, AARP needed to “keep a little space between us and the White House” as the organization is “more influential when we are seen as independent.”
Chief Operating Officer Thomas C. Nelson wrote to a Republican member of Congress in October 2009 that less than one half of one percent of members were cancelling their membership due to the bill, and “indicators point to little impact on overall membership.” Just before that letter was sent, an email to the White House Office of Health Reform indicated that while there was a “trickle” of folks cancelling over AARP’s support of the bill, the number “is likely to grow significantly in the weeks ahead.” The email further urged “keep this information close.”
CEO Barry Rand’s statement to Congressman was “We are a strictly non-partisan organization. We do our work in a very public way.” An email from Jim Messina, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, demands to AARP “We need Barry Rand to go meet with Ben Nelson personally and just lay it on the line. ‘We will be with you and we will protect you. But if you kill this bill, seniors will not forget.’ We are at 59 (votes), we have to have him.”
The letter then requests an explanation for the apparent “incongruent public statements” and correspondence with the White House senior staff regarding AARP’s political activities. It then asks for all emails and meeting transcripts from the organizations regarding Republican Congressional inquiries and/or those from the House Ways and Means Committee, and also those regarding the same communications with the White House during that time.
At issue is AARP’s true independence, and whether they represent what is best for seniors or what is best for the organization. At the time, facing a Democratic House, Senate, and Executive Branch, doing what was best for the organization was cooperating with a clear Democratic power structure.
What was best for seniors will remain up for debate among partisans. But ignoring and obfuscating the “vast majority” of their members’ opposition says that the leadership of AARP thought their concerns were clearly more important than those of their members.