Social Security flap roils AARP

Social Security flap roils AARP

July 10th, 2011 by McClatchy Newspapers in News

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - There are few easy answers when it comes to Social Security. And now one of the simpler questions appears to have gotten tougher.

Where does AARP stand on Social Security benefits?

"I knew that they were always claiming to be for no change in benefits. They've been upfront and always lobbying about that," said Jim Albrecht, a 66-year-old AARP member in Lenexa, Kan. "I would have said, 'Of course that's what their position is.'"

Albrecht would have known the answer, that is, until he read a recent Wall Street Journal article. Now, he and other AARP members don't know.

The article said AARP's leadership and board had endured a wrenching debate and decided to drop the lobbying group's long-standing opposition to benefit cuts as part of a revamp of Social Security. It said the group had concluded that changes were inevitable, that they would have to affect benefits and that AARP needed to be involved to minimize the pain.

Social Security's future has come under increasing debate in part because population changes have reduced sharply the number of workers paying into the program relative to the number of retirees and others receiving benefits.

The Journal's report, which relied heavily on AARP policy chief John Rother, said the policy change had not been revealed to AARP members.

AARP, with 37 million members age 50 and older, long has been a leading voice in Social Security policy matters. For example, it's opposed efforts to divert some of the program's funding into private investment accounts.

And its financial girth - including $1.3 billion in revenues last year from dues, contributions, insurance royalties and other sources - ensures its voice is heard on many issues in Washington.

A dramatic shift in the group's policy toward benefit cuts could be critical in reshaping Social Security.

AARP, however, has called The Journal's article and other media coverage of the matter "inaccurate" and "misleading."

An online post by A. Barry Rand, CEO of the Washington-based group, said it had not changed its position on Social Security, "and, as we have for decades, we will continue to protect this bedrock of lifetime financial security for all generations of Americans."

Right now that means putting Social Security off-limits in the intensifying debate in Washington this week about cutting the deficit. Only later, said another senior AARP official, will the group engage in debate about Social Security's long-term future.

"That debate, quite frankly, really hasn't started," said David Certner, AARP's legislative policy director.

Rand's post has drawn more than 100 anonymous and overwhelmingly unhappy comments on the organization's website. Many posters threatened to leave the group if The Journal's report was true.

Although Rand was taken to task, posters saved their most pointed attacks for Rother, AARP's principal voice in the news reports.

The Journal reported that Rother had been the "prime mover" behind the change. The New York Times said Rother explained the new policy as not so much a major change but a reflection of the political and financial realities facing Social Security and the nation.

"There's a simple way to send a signal that AARP is not going to abandon seniors to the wolves. Fire John Rother. Nothing less will do," said a comment on the AARP website posted from Nashua, N.H.

AARP spokeswoman Mary Liz Burns said the group would not comment on Rother's status.

For some AARP members, reports about the group's apparent shift on Social Security benefits irritated long-standing sores they developed over the organization's previous actions.

Some had derided AARP's position during President George W. Bush's push for Medicare pharmaceutical benefits. Others blanched at its role in supporting President Barack Obama's health care legislation, which The Journal report said had cost AARP 300,000 members.

Certner said the recent media coverage hadn't caused a noticeable jump in the number of phone calls to AARP's call centers.

"Generally speaking, the reaction from our membership has been minimal over the last couple of weeks' statements," Certner said.

But 37 million people are hardly going to be unanimous about anything.

A few online posts shared the view of former AARP member John B. Woods, an 83-year-old Leawood, Kan., resident who quit when AARP backed Obama's health care plans.

"It seemed like they were not interested in solving the problems we seniors are causing," Woods said.

Woods said the AARP stand as laid out in The Journal was the only way the group should look at Social Security. He doubts the retirement benefits program can survive unchanged and was confused by Rand's post after the media publicity. Others who were shocked by the evident shift in policy were comforted by what they consider AARP's moves since then to back off.

AARP is not backpedaling and hasn't changed its position, but it still has work to do on its policy about Social Security's long-term future, says Certner.

He said the postcards, TV spots and other AARP messages are aimed at protecting Social Security during the current debate over cutting the deficit

"We have been extremely adamant that there should be no Social Security cuts as part of that debate, and no cuts to Medicare beneficiaries as well," Certner said.

AARP's position, which Certner and some members recited, is that Social Security is separately funded, apart from the federal budget, didn't cause the federal deficit and shouldn't be called on to help reduce the deficit.

Certner had expected a different debate this summer, one that looks at Social Security's long-term future and "the financing gap it will experience roughly 25 years from now."

This debate is coming, he said, but discussions about it now will confuse the group's efforts to keep Social Security out of the deficit battle.