On Issues From Medicare to Medication, AARP's Money Will Be There
"Whatever it takes."
That's what William D. Novelli, AARP's soft-spoken chief executive, said his organization will spend this year on lobbying.
He was not kidding. Thanks to its many business ventures -- from insurance to mutual funds -- and the dues it collects from its 38 million members, AARP is the wealthiest advocacy organization on the planet. Its revenue last year was about $1 billion.
In an interview last week, Novelli said his group is "shooting for a big year" -- probably more than the $23 million it spent last year, but less than the $36 million it spent to defeat President Bush's Social Security proposal in 2005.
In other words, a ton.
AARP's stepped-up presence on Capitol Hill is bad news for its primary nemesis, the pharmaceutical industry, no slouch itself when it comes to big-bucks lobbying.
AARP is at odds with drug companies at almost every turn. It favors giving the government negotiating authority to reduce the cost of prescriptions under Medicare; it wants to expand the market for generic pharmaceuticals, rather than higher-cost brand-name medications; and it wants more low-priced drugs to be imported from Canada.
Novelli is also preparing to unleash millions of dollars to support California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's health-care overhaul, which would also reduce drug prices. The Republican governor's proposal, Novelli said, "could be the dynamite that breaks the national logjam."
The drug lobby is very unhappy about the high-octane competition. "After first supporting passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill, Mr. Novelli is trying to mend fences with the new Democratic majority in Congress, and he's doing it with a fistful of money," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
AARP shrugs off such criticism and is sharpening its lobbying tools. The group does not have a political action committee, but it has added staff members in all 50 states and is building a "grass tops" network of volunteers who know Congress members personally. (Think of these AARP members as the lawmakers' personal minders.) It has already identified grass toppers for a third of Congress.
AARP is also training a lot more of its members to shoot off e-mails to lawmakers on whatever issues headquarters considers the hottest. The e-mail army is 4.5 million strong, and Novelli expects that to double eventually.
Novelli was evasive about whether he will still be at AARP when that goal is reached. Now 65 and in his sixth year as chief executive, he said he expects to be with the group a year from now, but when asked about the year after, he said, "Who knows?"