Said to be the second-largest membership group in the United States—behind only the Roman Catholic Church—AARP has an annual budget of $800 million, five times that of the country’s biggest business association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The behemoth traces its ancestry to a little old lady named Ethel Percy Andrus, who founded the National Retired Teachers Association in 1947 to provide health insurance for retired teachers. So many retirees from other walks of life coveted this and other NRTA benefits that in 1958 Andrus expanded the organization into the American Association of Retired Persons. Taking into account the growing number of older Americans who choose to keep working, the group shortened its name to the now-famous four letters in 1999. According to its mission statement, AARP exists to enhance “the quality of life for all as we age.” Anyone age 50 or older can join; astonishingly, almost half of the eligible pool has done so. A year’s membership costs $12.50; benefits include the bimonthly AARP The Magazine, whose circulation is the largest in the land.

Bill Novelli came to AARP as associate executive director in 1999; in 2001 he was elevated to CEO. Before heading the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, he’d been executive vice-president of CARE. He embarked on this second, public-spirited phase of his career at age 49, after leaving Porter-Novelli, the public-relations firm he had co-founded (and which included AARP among its clients).

Novelli’s eagle-eyed monitoring of AARP’s membership rolls may be an outcome of the rebellion that broke out two years ago, when the group threw its support behind the Republicans’ Medicare prescription-drug bill. AARP is officially non-partisan, but if you couldn’t guess from its policy stances that the group has a natural affinity for the New Deal and its legacy, a perusal of its literature would soon lead to the same conclusion: the mission statement, for example, goes on to speak of instigating “positive social change,” a phrase redolent of 1960s activism. Or you could go by the right wing’s tendency to regard the organization as a bete noire. An upstart called the United Senior Association, whose consultants include several masterminds of the Swift Boat Veterans ads attacking John Kerry in the 2004 election, has claimed that AARP endorses gay marriage (AARP calls this statement “spurious”); and the editor of The National Review recently blasted it as a “greedy, scaremongering, reactionary lobby group.”

It was in the context of this left-leaning tradition that the membership backlash occurred, after AARP changed partners during the run-up to the 2003 law adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare. Among other provisions, Democrats objected to one barring the Medicare and Medicaid programs from using their bargaining power to negotiate prices with drug companies. Seventy thousand AARP members resigned, some of them in a card-burning protest outside the group’s headquarters, and a poll showed that only 18 percent of members backed AARP’s endorsement of the bill. The vehemence of the dissent caught the group’s hierarchy by surprise, and the way in which the bill passed the House—after a roll call held open for hours while the Republican leadership twisted the arms of balky legislators—sharpened the controversy. AARP was left to clean up what Novelli calls “a mess.”

Though standing by the decision to support the bill—and AARP has followed up with a campaign to get seniors to avail themselves of its benefits—Novelli admits that AARP “could talk to our members better, listen to them better.” In the meantime, some of the lost sheep have returned to the fold, and the group is now a couple of hundred thousand members heftier than it was when the flap started. Moreover, AARP is poised for a surge of growth as the baby-boom generation starts hitting age 65 in 2011.

As if to allay fears that stepping out with the GOP might be habit-forming, AARP has been leading the attack on President Bush’s concept of privatizing social security. It’s not that AARP opposes all reform of the system; on the contrary, the group’s strategic plan envisages a future in which “Americans can rely on Social Security that is solvent for the long term.” But AARP fiercely opposes letting people risk their late-in-life well-being in the stock market. In a speech to the National Press Club earlier this year, Novelli argued that “taking money out of Social Security payroll taxes to invest in private investment accounts would worsen the solvency outlook rather than improve it. And it could lead to large benefit cuts. This approach is risky, it’s hugely expensive, and it’s unnecessary.” Full-page ads with the same message have been appearing in newspapers around the country, AARP members regularly show up to denounce the president’s idea at local appearances by members of Congress, and a TV campaign is in the offing. This time there is no significant internal discord. “When AARP has a consensus among its members, it’s difficult to stop,” lobby expert James A. Thurber, who directs the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, recently told The Washington Post. “On this issue it has a consensus.” Former Senator John Breaux of Louisiana has called AARP’s opposition to private social-security accounts “close to fatal.” Novelli believes that he and the group have a lot riding on the outcome. “We’ve got to win this one,” he says.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/05

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FEATURE: Gray is Good