The Republican House leadership on Friday escalated its attack on AARP with a demand that the Internal Revenue Service launch a formal investigation into the nation’s largest senior citizen organization.
“Insurance profits may be driving policy decisions at AARP, rather than the best interest of seniors,” said Reps. Wally Herger, R-Calif., and Charles Boustany, R-La., at the conclusion of a Ways and Means subcommittee hearing on AARP. “As such, we will be formally requesting the IRS review AARP’s operations.”
AARP refuted the charges at the hearing, pointing out that they have consistently pushed for policies that expand benefits for seniors and curtail insurance company profits. The group gets more than half of its revenue from royalties generated by Medigap, Medicare Advantage and Medicare drug plans sold under the AARP label.
The mounting assault on a group with a membership of nearly 40 million people over age 50 (full disclosure: that includes me) now includes House Speaker John Boehner’s office, where chief spokesman Michael Steele told Politico on Thursday that the attack on AARP was part of a wider Republican strategy of cutting off financing for groups that backed liberal causes like health care reform over the past two years. “Our goal is to break their rice bowls,” he said.
The admission was contained in a broader story in the widely-read Inside-the-Beltway publication that linked the assault on AARP to Republican attacks on National Public Radio, Planned Parenthood and Environmental Protection Agency programs that generate funds for groups like Defenders of Wildlife. The story also mentioned Midwestern Republican governors’ assaults on public employee unions’ collective bargaining rights, which public opinion polls in those states now show are seen as politically motivated rather than necessary to balance budgets.
Some Republican voices are beginning to question the wisdom of using government agencies like the IRS to go after liberal-leaning groups, especially AARP since it is widely perceived by seniors as a positive force in maintaining and expanding health and retirement programs. With debates over entitlement reform looming, “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,” wrote Billy Tauzin, a former Congressional Republican leader who ran the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association when the prescription drug benefit was passed in 2003, in an op-ed in Politico.
Seniors gave Republican Congressional candidates a 21-point advantage in 2010 races, Tauzin pointed out. Traditionally a conservative constituency, seniors shifted even farther to the right in the last election after conservative special interest groups flooded the airwaves with commercials alleging health care reform would harm Medicare.
Now, with Republicans attacking AARP, which is Medicare’s chief defender in Washington, that shift could reverse, Tauzin warned. “Quite simply, the planned hearings into AARP’s operational activities could serve as an ill-advised strategy if those hearings begin to alienate a 21 percent voter advantage more than a year before voters head to the polls,” he said.
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