Diverse groups bent on influencing Social Security debate

Rock the Vote joins fray in campaign-style blitz

February 28, 2005|By William E. Gibson | William E. Gibson,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - Amid big-bucks lobbying by more powerful groups, Rock the Vote is reaching out to younger Americans over the Internet while planning concerts and advertisements to bring a youthful influence to the debate over the national retirement system.

Rock the Vote, an organization intent on stirring political involvement by young people, is one of many participants in an intense public lobbying campaign on all sides of the debate.

Residents of Florida and other key states, barely recovered from an onslaught of election ads last year, now face a campaign-style blitz on Social Security.

On one side are business and financial interests seeking public support for President Bush's proposed overhaul. On the other are big labor, liberal groups and some African-American and Hispanic groups who contend that Bush's plan would unravel the social safety net for poor and middle-income Americans.

All are competing for Americans' hearts and minds, and some are willing to spend millions to do it

"I think public opinion is the key," said Hans Riemer, Washington director of Rock the Vote. "The politicians are all about which way the wind blows on this one. They are not going to walk the plank if they think it will cost them."

Crowded arena

Rock the Vote is stepping into an arena already crowded with powerful advocates bent on shaping public opinion while pressuring Congress.

The confrontation rouses some of the same conflicting interests that clashed in the last two presidential campaigns and helped polarize the nation's politics. At stake in this case is the fate of a program that has kept millions of senior citizens out of poverty for 70 years but is expected to run short of money in four or five decades.

Already these powerful forces have set off a flurry of "town hall" meetings around the country designed to "educate" the public. Both sides have also taken to the airwaves with conflicting ad campaigns and other expensive lobbying tactics that are just getting under way.

Bush plans to renew his national tour this week to try to convince Americans that urgent action is needed to restructure Social Security and that investment accounts should be added as an alternative to guaranteed fixed monthly benefits.

Bush's efforts are backed by a potent array of business groups, Republican donors and conservative crusaders who have long sought investment accounts.

They argue that the program must be changed anyway to keep it solvent, so why not add investment accounts that allow future retirees to harness the stock and bond markets?

"We've just started in Florida. We're looking for allies wherever we can find them," said Derrick Max, executive director of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, an advocacy group for investment accounts, backed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable. "We're hiring grass-roots coordinators, recruiting volunteers, getting folks going to town-hall meetings and other events to build momentum behind this effort."

Campaigning with equal determination on the other side are most labor unions, many liberal donors and some African-American and Hispanic groups. The most influential may be AARP, the 35 million-member organization of older Americans, which two years ago helped Bush push through a Medicare bill that added prescription-drug benefits.

These advocates are urging caution while trying to convince the public that investment accounts could undermine Social Security. They say these accounts would erode the tax base for the traditional program by allowing people to divert taxes from the Social Security trust fund while also creating huge transition costs.

AARP members flooded Congress last month with more than 200,000 calls and e-mails.

"Every aspect of our organization, all our state offices, are actively engaged in this," said AARP's chief executive, Bill Novelli.

While Bush and business groups target younger Americans who may be receptive to investment accounts, Rock the Vote, the most high-profile youth group to emerge so far in the debate, has aligned itself with AARP and other opponents.

`Fun things' on Internet

Rock the Vote, which formerly teamed up with MTV to boost voter registration, promises "fun things" on the Internet, including games and calculators to engage younger people. The group is planning to raise money to pay for concerts and advertisements on radio and possibly TV.

Some observers estimate $100 million may be spent this year on advertising and public outreach to promote the president's plan. Already many millions have been spent on both sides.

AARP alone has poured $10 million into advertising so far. The group spent $20 million two years ago to promote the Medicare bill endorsed by Bush.

Other groups are reluctant to say how much they are spending, but many have deep pockets and have contributed heavily to the campaign funds of Bush and members of Congress.

The Alliance for Worker Retirement Security has donated $34.6 million to federal candidates and parties since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that studies campaign contributions. Of that, $25.8 million went to Republicans, including $972,000 to Bush.

Max said the alliance's effectiveness involves more than money. "We think the best way to educate people is to have their neighbors talk to them," he said.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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