Washington's Backlash Against Seniors

There's a subway that runs beneath Capitol Hill. It provides the fastest way for lawmakers to move between committee rooms, where they hold hearings, to the floors of Congress, where they vote. The subway cars look like amusement-park trams. Each one sits about six people. Last spring, Gilbert Eisner, along with three other activists from the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), was sitting in a subway car. Eisner and his allies were in Washington to lobby lawmakers on senior-citizen issues. Sen. Alan Simpson approached their car, his eyes focused on a paper he was reading. When the Wyoming Republican looked up and saw who was in the car, he turned away, Eisner recalls.Simpson's reaction to the AARP members offers a vivid example of one of the most significant developments in Washington over the past year: the rising backlash against senior citizens. While Eisner is reluctant to use that term, he concedes that the latest round of cutbacks in federal programs is a clear sign that seniors are no longer untouchable. "There is a perception that there are these greedy geezers who are all going to Palm Springs," he says, noting that in some cases, politicians are fanning these fears to mobilize a constituency."They need an enemy. The enemy is someone else's parent who is getting three MRIs a week." This is why more than 50 percent of proposed cuts to balance the budget have come from programs benefiting seniors (other targets include children, the disabled, and the poor), says Eisner.Others note that demographics make these attacks inevitable. "When you look at the budget, 37 percent of the money is spent on age-related programs," while seniors account for about 12.5 percent of the population, says Janie Steckenrider, an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University who is working on a book called New Directions in Old Age Policy.Those seniors are supported by both baby boomers and members of Generation X, and you don't have to be an econometrics expert to know that there will be less money for future seniors. Taking notice of this pattern, politicians have begun to challenge senior entitlements, one of the last inviolable elements of the American welfare state.Simpson stands at the apex of this nascent movement, having become the self-appointed AARP rebuker. Simpson is quick to assure that he's not a self-hating senior; rather, he says that his concerns rest with AARP's tactics. It's not surprising that Simpson is virtually alone in confronting AARP. While the organization does not make campaign contributions, its voting muscle gives it the power to put people in or keep them out of office. The group has long been considered Washington's most sacred cow, and taking on grandma and grandpa was seen as akin to announcing one's own resignation. Thus it was not unexpected when several months after Simpson opened hearings on the senior lobbying group, he announced his own intention to step down from office.It's not quite clear just what the senator had in mind when he opened the books on AARP in public hearings. Last June, Simpson, who chairs the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security and Family policy, called hearings to investigate AARP, an organization he calls a "major business empire" that has learned how to "gimmick the nonprofit laws." Simpson not only launched a broadside against the organization; he referred to AARP members as "millions of people in search of airline discounts."In private meetings with AARP officials, however, Simpson revealed his true colors. Speaking to AARP president Eugene Lehrman and senior AARP staff on May 8, 1995 he said: "The intensity of my efforts to investigate AARP will be in direct relation to how hard you fight the Medicare cuts." This warning foreshadowed what was in store on the senior front.The senior-citizens lobby is by no means your typical special-interest group. Aside from the Roman Catholic Church, it has the largest membership of any group or institution in the nation. It's also a retail outlet for group health insurance, mail-order prescriptions, car rentals, financial services, and credit cards. This is a lucrative business. Out of AARP's total revenue of $469 million in 1994, some $146 million came from membership dues 102 million from group health-care insurance; $86 million from federal grants; $47 million from advertising in its publications; $24 million from interest income; and some $64 million from the rest of the group's offerings.For Simpson, these numbers raise serious questions. "We here in Washington wonder who it is that AARP really represents, given that their money comes primarily from commercial activity," says Simpson. "We are told that they are an organization primarily concerned with the social welfare of elderly Americans, and thus should be tax-exempt. At all points, and in every application, AARP adopts the posture that benefits those running AARP. Government ought not to be any longer subsidizing the big lobbying, big business machines with taxpayer bucks."Although Simpson's move to open up AARP's books promised a confrontation akin to high noon, afterwards pundits compared it to high tea. When push came to shove, few senators lined up behind Simpson, and most members of his committee shied away entirely. But the issue of senior entitlements did not fade away into the sunset with Simpson. On the contrary, the budget controversy has forced the matter onto the national stage.Medicare has become the lightning rod in the growing debate over senior benefits. As lawmakers grapple with balancing the budget, the question is not whether Medicare will be cut back, but how much. Republicans have called for $270 billion in cuts by 2002, insisting that such reductions are necessary to save the program. They also want to cap the growth in Medicaid, which would save another $182 billion. Although Medicaid is designed to help the poor, it also covers health-care costs for about three-fifths of nursing-home patients. In California alone the proposed cuts in Medicare and Medicaid would reduce federal funding by $51.2 billion.There's no doubt that the demands on the Medicare system are substantial. Almost all 33 million senior citizens receive Medicare; in 1967, less than 20 million people were enrolled in the program. Over the next 40 years, some 70 million people will qualify for Medicare. As it stands now, the Medicare fund is expected to become insolvent by 2002. But the cutbacks in senior programs go beyond health services.Congress has taken steps either to cut or eliminate funding for programs that counter abuse of the elderly, help senior citizens pay their utility bills, and assist older Americans in finding employment. Lawmakers are also considering cuts in Veterans Administration funding. Eisner says that pitting the generations against each other is the wrong way to tackle the problem of an increasingly smaller spending pie. He points out that even as elected officials take on seniors, they continue to give handouts to corporate America. In addition to plans to cut the capital-gains tax, there are some smaller items in the current budget proposals that would offer windfalls to businesses. Eisner cites the House Commerce Committee's recent vote to eliminate the $250 fee that corporations pay when they file a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Over five years this will cost the government $616 million in lost revenue. "I ask you, what would GM or Philip Morris do with $250? But $250 means the difference between rent, medication, or food for many on the edge."Such arguments seem to be falling on deaf ears these days. For senior citizens, success will be determined not by what they can gain but by how much they can hold on to. Seniors no longer have the clout they had as recently as 1989, when they were able to block the expansion of catastrophic-care coverage by throwing themselves in front of former House Ways and Means Chair Dan Rostenkowsi's car. In retrospect, that triumph may have marked the high-water mark for the senior lobby.But even though seniors have been forced into retreat, they still carry considerable weight in influencing policy decisions. That's probably the reason why some lawmakers hope the Medicare issue will just go away.Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich belongs in this camp. "Now we don't get rid of [Medicare] in round one, because we don't think that's politically smart," he said last October, explaining the House Republicans' strategy. "But we believe it is going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it."Gingrich once proposed ending the baseball strike by having all parties watch the movie Field of Dreams. Maybe he thinks that if you destroy something, people will no longer want it. But there are at least 33 million Americans who might disagree.

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