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On Issues From Medicare to Medication, AARP's Money Will Be There

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"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?"

"I believe in renewal," he said, sounding like an AARP commercial for active retirements. He expressed a desire to find "a university with a good gym" so he can "hang out, take courses and drink beer. That's the long-term plan."

Crunching the Little Guy

Pharmaceutical companies are fighting not only giants such as AARP. They are also attacking pharmacists who mix drugs together right there behind the counter.

These "compounding pharmacists" want nothing more than to keep their mortars and pestles. But drug companies including AstraZeneca are pushing legislation to move regulation of compounding to the Food and Drug Administration from state boards of pharmacy, and to restrict the types of medicines that can be combined.

Drug firms insist that the changes are needed to ensure safety and sterility. But a coalition of pharmacy groups defends the practice as safe and necessary; if drugs were not mixed, people with autism and severe pain would be deprived of vital medications, the groups said.

The pharmacists also argue that the drug companies merely want to remove them as competitors with their off-the-shelf products. "This isn't about patients' health, it's about PhRMA's wealth," said Joshua D. Wenderoff, spokesman for the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists -- yes, there really is such a group.

Why Gun Control Is a Long Shot

If you want to know why major new federal restrictions on firearms will be a hard sell despite the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech last week, here's a leading reason: The National Rifle Association is one of the nation's richest and most influential pressure groups.

The gun lobby's political action committee raised nearly $1 million in the first two months of this year, making it the nation's sixth-largest PAC. At the end of February, it had $2.1 million on hand.

During the 2006 elections, the NRA's PAC collected $11.2 million, making it the country's eighth largest. Of the $1.2 million it dispensed to candidates for federal office, 85.5 percent went to Republicans. The NRA also spent more than $4 million on independent expenditures for and against candidates, and $1.6 million on lobbying Congress and the executive branch.

The $200 million-a-year organization has 4 million active members. For gun legislation to pass this year -- and only a tightening of the system for background checks of gun purchasers is being seriously considered -- the NRA will probably have to endorse it or at least remain neutral.

Breakups of the Week

Jefferson Consulting Group, a lobbying and government-contracting firm, plans to split up. Robert J. Thompson, the firm's chairman, will leave May 1 to head a new company, Thompson Advisory Group. Chief executive Julia T. Susman will remain with Jefferson Consulting, with most of the staff.

The breakup is amicable, unlike in 1999, when the Jefferson Group, then one of Washington's largest lobbying firms, spun apart amid lawsuits and armed guards into Jefferson Consulting Group and Jefferson Government Relations.

Separately, lawyer/lobbyist Lloyd N. Hand, 78, has moved to King & Spalding from DLA Piper. Hand was a partner in the District law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand before it merged into DLA Piper in 2002. His wife is Ann Hand of the eponymous jewelry store.

Moonlighting Lobbyist of the Week

Frank A. Keating, president of the American Council of Life Insurers, is one of six winners of the International Reading Association's 2007 Children's Book Award for "Theodore" (Simon & Schuster, 2006), his biography of President Theodore Roosevelt.

"Theodore" is Keating's second children's book. His previous one, "Will Rogers: An American Legend" (Harcourt, 2002), was a Children's Choice selection of the reading association. Keating, a Republican former governor of Oklahoma, has plans to publish books on presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, rounding out a Mount Rushmore series. Mike Wimmer of Norman, Okla., is the illustrator.

How does Keating find the time? "He does a lot of traveling," said Dan Mahoney of the insurance council. "He researches and writes on airplanes, in hotel rooms, etc."

Which makes me wonder: Do you know a lobbyist or a PR specialist with a quirky or fascinating sideline? If so, please contact me with the details. I can be reached at kstreet@washpost.com.

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