JONATHAN COHN MARCH 29, 2011
In a political development that will shock nobody, House Republicans are hauling in the AARP to testify before Congress.
AARP, as you may recall, supported the Affordable Care Act that Republicans fought so bitterly and are now trying to repeal. Given the widespread skepticism senior citizens have expressed about the law, AARP's endorsement has been no small thing.
But the two committee chairmen leading the hearings insist their investigation is neither a form of political payback nor an effort to sully the organization's reputation. Says Wally Herger, chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommitte on Health:
This hearing is about getting to the bottom of how AARP’s financial interests affect their self-stated mission of enhancing seniors' quality of life. It is important to better understand how AARP’s insurance business overlaps with its advocacy efforts and whether such overlap is appropriate.
In principle, scrutinizing the overlap between AARP's advocacy and business interests is fair game. AARP gives its imprimatur to some of the private insurance policies that seniors use as a supplement to, or substitute for, traditional Medicare. And AARP makes money from this arrangement. AARP has long denied a conflict of interest and it's not clear (at least to me) that the Affordable Care Act means better sales of AARP plans. Still, the arrangement raises the kind of questions that Congress has every right to ask.
And yet...where was the Republican outrage in 2003, when the AARP endorsed President Bush's Medicare drug law? In that case, AARP's financial interest was far more clear-cut. Bush's insistence upon providing drug coverage through private insurers, rather than a government-program, meant substantial new business for the AARP-endorsed plans.
Republicans uttered barely a word of protest back then. On the contrary, they lavished praise on AARP and wielded its endorsement as a shield against Democratic attacks on the law. Here's what Republican Representative Bill Thomas, then chair of the Ways and Committee, had to say at the time.
...if we are trying to destroy Medicare, why is the American Association of Retired People supporting this proposal? Why is the AARP in favor of this bill? You've heard some very harsh rhetoric from my friends across the aisle, describing their abandonment by the AARP. My friends, the AARP has not abandoned you. You've abandoned seniors. AARP has chosen to be with seniors, and they have chosen to be with us.
[Full clip below]
Am I being too unkind to the Republicans? Might this upcoming investigation be a genuine effort to promote the public interest? There's one way to find out.
Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business have financial ties to insurance retailers that sell policies to small businesses. I say "ties" because the exact nature of their relationships are opaque and NFIB, according to its officials, seems to have a less direct (and presumably less lucrative) interest in insurance sales than AARP.
Still, both groups would seem to have at least some financial stake in the Affordable Care Act, which regulates these particular insurance plans closely. Both groups have been outspoken opponents of the law. And, by the way, both have well-known histories of lobbying for health care legislation that would benefit them financially.
If House Republicans want to investigate the business arrangements of organizations lobbying on health care, let them investigate. But they should look at all of the groups, not just the ones that happen to support the Affordable Care Act.