First, AARP tried to convey disappointment. In May, the group launched a TV ad warning that Congress might try to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits as part of a deal to raise the national debt ceiling. “The country can do better,” it said.
Then, in June, it tried ridicule. Another TV ad hit Congress for pondering those cuts while the government spent money on such things as pickle research and experiments in which shrimp ran on treadmills.
That didn’t work either.
So AARP’s new tactic is more direct: veiled threats.
“Maybe we seem like an easy target” for Congress, a grandfather says in a TV ad the group launched Wednesday. “Until you realize there are 50 million of us.”
It’s still unclear what provisions might be included in a final deal to raise the debt limit, if a deal ever comes. But it’s obvious that reductions to Social Security and Medicare are still on the table — despite furious efforts by seniors groups to push them off.
That fact could reflect some decline in the influence of AARP, after its bruising intervention in the fight over health-care reform.
It also likely shows how thoroughly the debt-ceiling battle has scrambled Washington politics: With a global economic calamity predicted any day now, it may just be harder to scare people about anything else.
Advocates “can’t understand it,” said Josh Rosenblum, of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, which wants Social Security to be removed from the debt-ceiling talks. “We have told the president, and told Congress, that every single poll that’s been taken [shows] folks don’t want benefit cuts. And yet they still seem to be willing to consider it.”
Not all seniors advocates agree.
Phil Kent, head of the American Seniors Association, which was founded as a conservative alternative to AARP, said long-term concerns about Social Security and Medicare mean that both should be on the table.
“The Congress has an obligation — the White House has an obligation — to control spending,” Kent said, which means considering benefit cuts now.
Social Security and Medicare are two of the federal government’s largest programs — accounting for almost 31 percent of the federal budget. Nobody’s talking about getting rid of them.
But both President Obama and congressional Republicans have been discussing changes that could slice billions from the two programs’ budgets.
For Medicare, one option might be raising the age of eligibility, from 65 to 67. Another would be restricting the “Medigap” programs that seniors buy to supplement their government-paid Medicare. Critics have said these raise overall Medicare spending by making seniors less cost-conscious. Another option: raise Medicare premiums for the wealthy.
On Social Security, one possibility under discussion is a shift in the way cost-of-living increases are given. This would lower seniors’ expected benefits over time — by only a little in the early years of retirement but by almost 10 percent if they live into their 90s.
Obama and House Republicans — who have agreed on little else in this debate—have said it’s necessary to examine these options. Without changes, they warn, both programs could run out of money in the coming decades, and compound the country’s growing problem with debt.
But many seniors’ groups have said that the onrushing deadline, Aug. 2, does not allow enough time for an intelligent fix.
“Since we’re doing hard things, we might as well do Social Security” appears to be the prevailing logic, said Max Richtman, acting chief executive of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He doesn’t agree: “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to bring in such a difficult issue.”
Several seniors groups have launched advertising and lobbying campaigns designed to dissuade Congress and the president. Richtman’s group is planning to spend a million dollars on ads, he said, including some running this weekend in the D.C. media market. Another group has started a Web site, OneAway.org, that highlights the number of seniors who are just “one crisis away” from financial ruin.
And AARP has begun airing its new ad across the country, including in swing states such as Montana, Ohio, Illinois and Florida. In the ad, a man says he’s a grandfather, a retiree and a Social Security beneficiary.
“Here’s what I’m not: a pushover,” he says.
But others who have studied this subject had an alternative message for the prominent seniors’ lobby. “If I were to give unsolicited advice to AARP, it would be not to pretend that over the next 10 years these programs can be held harmless” and protected from cuts, said Brookings Institution scholar Bill Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “But, rather, to participate in a conversation about how they can be sustained in the long term.”
On Wednesday, AARP officials from all 50 states were walking the halls of congressional office buildings, making their case to legislators and staff one at a time.
“We really wanted to stress that we don’t want Medicare and Social Security on the table,” said Terri Potente, an AARP leader from Fruita, Colo. She was in the outer office of Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), wearing a button that said “I am NOT a pushover.” She was handing a red envelope to a staffer who looked so young that it left the AARP lobbyists slightly depressed. “We’d really appreciate it if you convey that to the congressman.”
“I’ll pass this along,” the young man said.