A VIEW FROM WASHINGTON
Special to The Guardian
A. J. “JIM” NORBY
We are tightly focused, as this is written, on the conciliation process taking place in Congress with the Pension Reform Legislation. I realize this is old news since we have been pounding away on this since this time last year, but the stakes are high. We don’t feel as though we can take our eyes off the ball until this legislation becomes law. We continue to do everything possible, our daily contacts with members of the Committee of Reconciliation, and with pressure from our Grass Roots Organization, with letters, e-mails and telephone calls. (Since March 12, 2006, Committee members have received over 12000 letters and e-mails from NRLN membership.) The Committee continues to debate the issues, and they have not arrived at a compromise.
The Board of the NRLN meets in late June to consider this year’s progress on legislation and determine strategy for the remainder of the congressional session. We, also, will be taking a “first look” at next year’s legislative agenda.
We don’t often talk about the professional staff that we have recruited and who work out of our Washington headquarters. I would like to introduce you to one of our staff that we retain in Washington to carry on the daily work of the NRLN. There are three, all lawyers, with significant experience in Washington who devote their specific experience to further our cause. The first that we would like you to become acquainted with is Marta Bascom who is featured in the following interview. We also have on staff our legal counsel, Michael Calabrese and Professor Phyllis Borzi of the George Washington School of Law who serves as our legislative strategist.
Pension reform and health care are front burner issues in Congress these days, demanding the expertise and professional skills of a seasoned legislative strategist and advocate such as NRLN Executive Director Marta Aguirre Bascom. Since coming to the NRLN in July 2004, Marta has become a familiar presence on Capitol Hill, representing the views and positions of the NRLN on behalf of its two million-plus members. Her tireless efforts have contributed significantly to making NRLN “a player” when it comes to issues affecting retiree pensions and health care benefits.
Through her continuous monitoring of new and pending legislation, and her face-to-face interaction with key Senators, House members and their staffs, Marta has been an effective proponent for issues that directly affect the retirement security of millions of Americans. Given her first-hand experience with the decision-makers in Congress and current legislation of interest to NRLN members, Marta has a unique perspective and insight that she recently shared in an exclusive interview with us that covered several timely topics.
On pension reform legislation…
Right now, the key bill for us is in a conference committee which is negotiating two pension reform bills passed in the House and Senate. It’s very dynamic because you have different forces at work. You have corporate America that’s not only trying to protect their own interest – they’re trying to gain momentum on some things that they want to do that could hurt retirees. Our side is looking for true pension reform. Hopefully, this legislation will be a bill that we want to get out, because you never know in conference what will come up. We want to make sure that if something comes out that it really works for us. We have to wait and see.
‘Our strength is that we have a very
educated, activist membership.’
On health care legislation…
We’ve been very active supporting the Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act which would permit U.S. consumers to buy safe prescription drugs from Canada and other countries. That bill was introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) with bipartisan support from several senators including Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and others. I recently touched based with Sen. Dorgan’s staff which is trying to attach the bill to another piece of legislation that might be moving, but that’s always a tough thing to do.
On the current mood in the House and Senate toward retiree issues…
From both a policy and a political perspective, members of Congress are very, very concerned. In terms of policy, they’re very concerned because there’s going to be a growing number of retirees now that the baby boomers are starting to retire. And there is a genuine concern about how much this is going to cost us in a deficit situation in terms of the U.S. government. From a political perspective they are extremely concerned because it’s an election year and we have a very dissatisfied constituency. You’ve seen in the press all these accounts of people who are trying to fill out their Medicare prescription forms and its very complex. And many retirees and older workers believe it was very poorly managed and members of Congress are hearing their dissatisfaction. Whether that concern translates into proactive measures it’s hard to tell.
On competing against corporate interests…
We can do it through NRLN’s grass roots effort. If there’s anything that members of Congress listens to it’s when they get a flood of letters or e-mail from people who live in their state or in their home district. Every letter represents a voter, so they have to respond, especially in an election year. Our strength is that we have a very educated, activist membership. And that makes all of the difference when you’re lobbying.
‘Every letter represents a voter, so
they have to respond, especially
in an election year.’
On dealing with members of Congress…
One thing the NRLN is very aware of is that a member of Congress who may not be with you on one issue could very well be your champion on another issue. And the players change all the time in terms of who is with us and who is not. Not everybody is going to agree on everything and it depends on the issues as to who is your champion and who is your nemesis.
On dealing with congressional staff members…
When you’re dealing with staff members on Capitol Hill you’re dealing with a lot of young people who aren’t always aware of what retirees and older workers actually confront on a monthly basis when they’re facing bills and mounting costs. So a lot of what we do is an education process – educating people who may not have an awareness of what daily life is for a retiree in this country.
On effective communications …
Some of our members visit with either members of Congress or their staffs in their district offices and that makes a big difference. We also use the Cap Wiz system, which has been very, very effective. In terms of what type of communication works best, it may be different from legislator to legislator. But by using a combination of visits to district offices and correspondence by either mail or e-mail, we’ve been able to get our message across and it’s been very effective.
On keeping track of retiree issues …
It’s a challenge because you have more than 400 members of Congress on the House side and 100 senators on the Senate side and they’re introducing bills all the time that affect retirees. We can keep track of everything electronically, which is one of the tools we use, but we are now in a position where people on The Hill know the NRLN and want to hear where we stand on issues. So the policymakers call us to ask what we think because they have a bill and they want to find out our response to it.
‘A member of Congress who may
not be with you on one issue
could very well be your champion
on another issue.’
On key committees to watch…
In the Senate, the two committees that are most active on retiree issues are Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the Finance Committee. In the House, we have the Ways and Means Committee which has jurisdiction over some of our issues and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Health care is especially difficult to monitor because you have so many members of Congress who will drop a bill into the hopper. And whether or not the bill goes anywhere, just the fact that it’s been introduced means you have to take a look at it.
On future issues affecting retirees…
Health care issues are going to be extremely important to the NRLN. And even if pension reform goes through, the pension issues aren’t going to go away because you have the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) that’s running into a deficit. Not every pension issue is being addressed in this bill. You’re always going to have corporations running back to Congress trying to get things through that aren’t in the best interest of older workers or retirees. In some ways the issues that we address today are going to be the same issues that we address tomorrow and the next year and the next. But, because of the complexity of the issues, not everything is addressed every single time. So that’s going to continue to be the focus of the NRLN.
On what the future holds…
As long as retirees are willing to speak up for their rights, there is always hope that they can get their message across and that that message will translate into good policy.
In representing the NRLN, Marta is a strong advocate for those issues on Capitol Hill that retirees care about. Her professionalism allows her to present NRLN positions to members of Congress and their staffs using facts and persuasion to make her case. She is always proactive in her advocacy of issues which we care about that are being addressed in Congress. If they are not being addressed in Congress – she knows exactly which committees deal with those issues and the best approach to make them aware that there are more than 2 million members of NRLN who care very deeply about these issues.
Marta’s work on behalf of retirees and NRLN members has been exemplary and we’re fortunate to have her as a member of our team.
Until next time, good luck and God speed.
(SIDEBAR TO A VIEW FROM WASHINGTON)
About Marta Aguirre Bascom
Marta Aguirre Bascom is Executive Director of the National Retiree Legislative Network (the “NRLN”). Since joining the NRLN in 2004, Marta has been engaged in legislative strategy and advocacy on Capitol Hill on issues affecting retiree pensions and health benefits. Before joining the NRLN, she served as Director of Federal Relations in the Washington, D.C. office of AirTouch Communications, a San Francisco-based company which offered domestic and international wireless communications services. From 1995 to 1999, her responsibilities involved legislative and international affairs advocacy before Members of Congress and officials in the Executive Branch on issues affecting the cellular, paging, PCS and satellite communications industries.
Marta came to AirTouch from COMSAT Corporation where she was Manager of Government Affairs from 1993 to 1995. Prior to joining AirTouch, she served as Legislative Assistant to Senator John McCain of Arizona from 1990 to 1993 where she focused on issues before the Commerce and Judiciary Committees.
She received her B.A. from Cornell University and her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.
May 27, 2006 – NRLN sends another letter to the Conference Committee reminding them of the NRLN’s key issues.
May 19, 2006 -- NRLN President A.J. “Jim” Norby sends a letter to members of the U.S. Senate and House conference committee on pension reform and their staffs restating the organization’s concerns over specific provisions of proposed legislation.
April 11, 2006 – NRLN issues a news release announcing a grass roots campaign to urge individual workers and retirees to personally meet with their congressional representatives while they’re back home on behalf of pension reform.
April 4, 2006 – NRLN President A.J. “Jim” Norby issues a Cap Wiz alert requesting members to urge U.S. Senate and House members from their states to reject specific provisions of the pension reform legislation before it is voted out the of the conference committee.
March 24, 2006 – NRLN issues a news release urging the U.S. Senate and House conference committee on pension reform to reject a provision to modify Section 420 of the Internal Revenue Code related to surplus pension assets.
March 20, 2006 – NRLN President A.J. “Jim” Norby issues a Cap Wiz alert requesting New Jersey residents to contact Sen. Frank Lautenberg and urge him to reconsider his support of a pension reform measure to modify Section 420 of the Internal Revenue Code to lower the transfer threshold of a pension plan surplus from 125 percent to 115 percent.
March 15, 2006 – NRLN President A.J. “Jim” Norby sends a letter to President George W. Bush applauding his comments to the National Newspapers Association (NNA) where he called on American businesses to live up to their pension promises to workers and retirees.
March 14, 2006 – NRLN issues a news release urging the U.S. Senate and House conference committee to revise proposed pension reform legislation.