The GOP vs. The AARP

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There’s a fascinating hearing going on right now on Capitol Hill where the CEO of AARP Barry Rand is testifying before the House Ways and Means subcommittees on Oversight and health. Republicans this week released a report accusing AARP of profiting from health care reform to the tune of $1 billion over a decade at the expense of their members. The GOP members on the committee have been grilling Rand about his “backroom deals” with the Obama Administration have been questioning whether the organization should be tax-exempt.

From Rand’s statement:

“AARP is proud of our record.  Throughout our more than 50 years of service, we have worked tirelessly to promote nonpartisan policy solutions and to improve the marketplace to enhance the public good, especially for those 50 and older.  And we will continue to do so in the future.

“We are a strictly nonpartisan organization. We do our work in a very public way.  Since its founding, AARP has made information about its finances, mission, and governance available to the public….”

“This is why we are surprised and disappointed both by the title and substance of the report a few members released this week: ‘Behind the Veil: The AARP America Doesn’t Know.’

“There is no veil.

“Quite frankly, we disagree with each of the conclusions drawn in this one-sided report.

“First, we reject the allegation that our public policy positions are influenced by our revenues.  Our policy positions are set by our all-volunteer board of directors, based on the needs of the 50-plus population.  They are determined totally independent from revenue considerations.

“We have long maintained that we would forgo revenue in exchange for lifetime health and financial security for all older Americans.

“The revenues we earn from royalties allow us to keep membership dues low—currently $16 a year—while providing outstanding benefits to members and to all Americans age 50 and over.

“We also reject the conclusion that we are not good stewards of our non-profit status.  The revenue that AARP receives from lending its name to products and services goes directly to fulfilling our mission and serving people 50-plus….”

This has been a fascinating spectacle to watch because it’s a total reversal from seven years ago when the AARP was tight with the GOP and worked against Democrats to pass the Medicare Prescription Drug program. But even then, Dems kept their griping to themselves as it’s dangerous to take on the AARP without being perceived as taking on seniors. Right now, seniors are the most solidly-Republican age demographic amongst voters. President Obama lost seniors by  8 percentage points in 2008 and Dems lost them by a whopping 21 points in 2010. Republicans have a little wiggle room, if they can successfully divorce AARP from its constituents. But, as former Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin notes in a Politico op-ed today, it’s a dangerous row to hoe.

What’s good for seniors, in short, has been good for the Republican Party.

Yet, if only because AARP is so big — its 40 million members include half the population over age 50 and an even larger percentage of those likely to vote — perceived attacks on the group may well be considered an attack on seniors in general, if other non-profit benefits are effected.

One thing is certain: Seniors do not like attempts to curtail any of their benefits. AARP provides them a high threshold of non-government benefits they obviously enjoy, above any political outcomes witnessed thus far.

As such, a perceived attack on AARP could easily backfire, giving Democrats an opportunity they could quickly use to paint themselves as the party best positioned to protect seniors in the future.

Yes, Republicans want to underline as much as possible how much they hate Obamacare. But, there is such a thing as overreach in one’s opposition. The hearings have been hyper partisan and verging on nasty – never a good sign. You know things are bad when Charlie Rangel gasps: “This is Congress?”

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