The Corner

Did the AARP Sell Out on Social Security?

AARP, the powerful (and liberal-leaning) lobbying group for senior citizens, raised eyebrows Friday when the Wall Street Journal reported that the organization was “dropping its longstanding opposition to cutting Social Security benefits, a move that could rock Washington’s debate over how to revamp the nation’s entitlement programs.”

The decision, which AARP hasn’t discussed publicly, came after a wrenching debate inside the organization. In 2005, the last time Social Security was debated, AARP led the effort to kill President George W. Bush’s plan for partial privatization. AARP now has concluded that change is inevitable, and it wants to be at the table to try to minimize the pain.

“The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens,” said John Rother, AARP’s long-time policy chief and a prime mover behind its change of heart.

The shift, which has been vetted by AARP’s board and is now the group’s stance, could have a dramatic effect on the debate surrounding the future of the federal safety net, from pensions to health care, given the group’s immense clout.

Which seemed a bit odd, considering AARP just launched a “Protect Medicare and Social Security” campaign, including ad like this one urging Congress to leave benefits intact:

This seemingly new development touched off a wave of outrage from competing advocacy groups:

“AARP is losing the confidence of seniors around the country, and not just seniors but people of every age group,” said Max Richtman, acting CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “I hope the ship that he wants to be steer isn’t the Titanic filled with seniors.”

Ed Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said, “AARP does not speak for all seniors, and on this topic probably not many of their own members.”

Eric Kingson, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of about 300 groups, accused AARP of trying to win an influential seat at the negotiating table when lawmakers tackle Social Security.

“AARP is positioning itself as an inside dealmaker that’s open to benefit cuts when in fact it should be educating the public about the need to selectively improve the one economic security retirement institution that works quite well,” Kingson said. “Even if one believes that some ground may have to be ceded on Social Security, it’s terrible negotiation strategy to signal a willingness to compromise before negotiations are joined.”

The backlash was such that the group’s CEO, A. Barry Rand, felt compelled to put out a statement declaring that AARP’s position on Social Security had not changed:

“Let me be clear – AARP is as committed as we’ve ever been to fighting to protect Social Security for today’s seniors and strengthening it for future generations. Contrary to the misleading characterization in a recent media story, AARP has not changed its position on Social Security.

But Rand also reiterated that the group is not unequivocally opposed to changes to the program:

It has long been AARP’s policy that Social Security should be strengthened to provide adequate benefits and that it is sufficiently financed to ensure solvency with a stable trust fund for the next 75 years. It has also been a long held position that any changes would be phased in slowly, over time, and would not affect any current or near term beneficiaries. 

And what exactly might those changes to “strengthen” Social Security look like? Phillip Klein flags a passage from the Wall Street Journal piece that many seem to have overlooked:

There are limits to how far AARP is willing to go. The group will accept cuts, but won’t champion them, and it is particularly leery of certain concepts such as eliminating benefits for wealthier recipients.   

It wants tax increases to fill most of the program’s financial hole, and it insists that a deal must be crafted apart from broader deficit-reduction negotiations.

Unfortunately, not even Rand’s clarification was able to ward off a resounding broadside of rhetorical questions from the National Organization for Women, whose president Terry O’Neill fired off a tirade against AARP for “undermining seniors benefits:”

…does AARP not understand, or does it simply not care that Social Security benefit cuts would push hundreds of thousands of seniors into poverty and that women would be hit especially hard, having less resources to fall back on after a lifetime of wage discrimination? Has AARP not heard, or does it simply not care that a substantial proportion of the baby boom generation is unprepared for retirement, having seen wages stagnate or fall over their working lives, their home values plummet, and their retirement savings decimated thanks to deceptive and irresponsible Wall Street dealings?

AARP’s machinations to keep itself in with the in-crowd are particularly reprehensible because Social Security has nothing to do with the federal budget and would be made solvent for 75 years and beyond simply by scrapping the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax. Do AARP’s leaders not understand this, or do they simply not care?

So we have to ask: ‘What is AARP thinking?’ Obviously, they are NOT thinking about the well-being of a majority of their membership if they back ANY benefit cuts to Social Security. AARP members need to re-assess their membership in an organization that is not adequately representing their best interests.

All told, the takeaway is most likely that AARP can sense which way the political winds are blowing and are merely positioning themselves (at least behind the scenes) to “minimize the pain.” That would still mark a significant development in the often discouraging campaign to reign in federal entitlement costs. Plus, how often do we get to see NOW and the AARP face off against one another?

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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