A few weeks ago, just prior to a House vote on the issue, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) suddenly announced it was launching a massive grassroots campaign to oppose Medicare reform proposals in Congress. Media reports indicated that AARP, after months of soft-pedaling on the issue, would be establishing "campaign-style" field offices in "key presidential states," including New Hampshire and Iowa.
The House approved its Medicare reform package, and now the Senate must come up with its own reform plan. But every American taxpayer should note the significance of AARP's late entry into the fray. This last minute activist turn by the nation's largest senior citizens' lobby was motivated by fear: Only six days before AARP's announcement, liberals in Congress had publicly browbeat the group into mounting a more offensive strategy opposing Medicare reform.
The message was clear: We liberals have siphoned off huge portions of the taxpayers' money to help subsidize your lobbying activity for years -- now it's payback time.
Groups like AARP that receive taxpayer funding even though they conduct lobbying activities (that means they use your money whether you agree with their cause or not) are now finding themselves captive to the politicians who give them your money. They're responding to veiled threats that their funding could be withdrawn if they don't dance to a particular political tune. Taxpayer funding of lobbying groups would be sharply curtailed under an amendment sponsored by Rep. Earnest Istook, R-Okla., and Congress is expected to take final action in the next few weeks. If it fails passage, political arm-twisting over issues like Medicare will continue.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Sept. 28, that House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., "suggested this week that the AARP was making a mistake in not already mobilizing its 33 million members against Republican plans to slow Medicare spending." Gephardt's Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle, D-S.D., bemoaned that "it has been somewhat surprising that they've waited this long" to voice opposition.
Now, to you and me, those don't sound like doomsday proclamations. But in the nomenclature of official Washington they went off like cannon shots. In just six days, AARP announced the opening of anti-reform campaign offices nationwide, to disseminate the message that proposed changes in Medicare were "draconian." The group's Iowa spokesman -- apparently unconcerned that the group's grassroots organizing is supposed to be independent -- reminded reformers in Congress that AARP members compose 10 percent of that state's population and thus represent a major voting bloc.
Of course the reason congressional liberals can browbeat this powerful special interest into action is because AARP is a major beneficiary of taxpayer financing. In fact, the $86 million AARP acknowledged receiving in federal funding in 1993 through various grant programs represented approximately one-quarter of its annual expenditures. AARP's sources of federal funding range from programs for the elderly to millions of dollars annually to provide clerical support for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
From July 1993 to June 1994, AARP's largest single source of taxpayer funding was the Department of Labor/Employment Training Administration's "Senior Community Service Employment Program." This one program provides about $49 million per year to AARP's bank account. More than $300 million of the $400 million appropriated for Program Year 1994 went to 9 seniors' organizations and the Forest Service, with the remainder going to the states.
AARP was also a major beneficiary of the EPA's "Senior Environmental Employment Program." The annual appropriation is $45 million. With that money, approximately 265 grants are made. The AARP receives approximately $20 million from this program. It provides support to almost every regional office of the EPA, as well as most divisions within the Washington headquarters. This particular program permits AARP to benefit from the inflow of funds and the EPA to benefit from low-cost labor to promote its agenda.
The group also received approximately $4.6 million per year under the Treasury Department/Internal Revenue Service's "Tax Counseling for the Elderly Program." This represents the lion's share of the grant's annual appropriation. Ironically, AARP could have used some of its own tax counseling, since they were recently forced to settle with the IRS for tens of millions of dollars in back taxes.
The browbeating of AARP into active opposition to Medicare reform symbolizes the arrogance and corruption created by 40 years of taxpayer-funded political patronage. Nobody asked the taxpayers whether they favored the causes AARP or literally hundreds of other groups espouse in their lobbying efforts. Yet, over the decades, Congress has handed them billions in taxpayer funding in ever-increasing increments.
It's time for this "welfare for lobbyists" -- and the arm twisting it encourages -- to end.
Note: Marshall Wittmann and Charles P. Griffin are former director and former deputy director, respectively, of the Government Integrity Project at The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.