WASHINGTON -- AARP, the most powerful lobby for senior citizens, is committed to keeping Social Security out of any deficit debate going on in Washington, a top official told The Huffington Post.
Three progressive organizations -- Social Security Works, Credo Action and the blog FireDogLake.com -- launched campaigns aimed at pressuring AARP to stand up for Social Security after HuffPost reported that the elderly lobby was planning to host a high-level "salon-style conversation" with deficit hawks and advocates of cutting Social Security. Tens of thousands -- including thousands of AARP members -- signed petitions urging AARP not to support benefit cuts.
The organization went ahead with the salon at the end of March, hosted by AARP CEO Barry Rand. Along with deficit experts, the salon also included defenders of Social Security.
After the salon, AARP's top lobbyist, Nancy LeaMond, said that the group was committed to defending Social Security from those who see it as a way to close the deficit.
"We've spent the better part of last year, when the focus was exclusively on the deficit, saying that Social Security should not be part of that discussion and we worked very hard on that and we're happy at the end of the day that we were able to keep it out of that debate," she said.
But, she said, there is no getting around the fact that Social Security will continue to arise as a topic of national debate. "Social Security is going to be part of the national conversation. The fact that it was raised over the last year means that people are talking about it," she said. "As we hear from millions of our members, they want to talk about it."
LeaMond said that the group's recently organized national tour called You've Earned A Say is a way to give members a chance to let AARP know how they feel about Social Security and Medicare.
"I think their message is loud and clear. We heard this over the course of the last year, we continue to hear it as we have begun our You've Earned A Say conversations around the country. And that is, full-stop, our members, people over the age of 50, do not believe that Social Security should be part of a deficit conversation, and I think we're hearing that loud and clear," she said.
One message coming through clearly from the town halls, said LeaMond, is that Social Security is not just supplemental income for many members. "For over half of retirees, Social Security is either their sole source of income, or their primary source of income in retirement, and the average is around $20,000 a year. I think they listen to some of the debate in D.C. that makes it sound like everybody's living in gated communities, and just think it's an extreme missing-of-the-picture.
Privately, the AARP has been assuring members that the group is committed to defending Social Security.
"Thank you for contacting AARP about the Huffington Post story on March 16 regarding our launch of "You've Earned A Say" - a national conversation to ensure that Americans have a say in the future of Social Security and Medicare. It's my pleasure to respond," reads a letter sent to one member and forwarded to HuffPost. "For the past year, Washington has been discussing changes to Medicare and Social Security behind closed doors as part of a backroom budget deal. Throughout that debate, we heard from millions of members who said they're tired of Washington playing politics with the benefits they've earned. That's why we've launched 'You've Earned A Say.' We're calling it that because Americans have earned their benefits by paying into Social Security and Medicare for years and they deserve to know what the politicians are talking about."
The letter then goes on to discuss the salon in relation to the town halls.
"You may be interested in learning some background about our salons," it reads. "AARP's salon style conversations began in 2009. They are convened to create an environment where a civil and thoughtful discourse with people who agree and disagree with us can take place. When much of the discourse in Washington is divisive, we are looking to bring civility back to the conversation. These discussions bring together thought leaders from government, business, associations and non-profits, influencers and journalists for an in-depth conversation on major national issues of the day. These forums are unique in that they are completely off-the-record, and they provide a venue for those with varying perspectives to come together and have an open and honest dialogue. We have convened Salons to discuss topics such as the debate and outlook for health care reform implementation, the economy and recession, and Social Security.
"From March 19, 2012, through the end of the year, we'll be sponsoring town halls, community conversations, debates, webcasts, bus tours and other events - yes, as the Huffington Post mentioned, even salons - all with the goal of giving Americans a chance to hear and comment on proposals, and also to offer their own ideas about how to keep Social Security and Medicare strong for the long term."