A VIEW FROM WASHINGTON October 2003
By Jim Norby
It’s hard to believe, but Congress now has begun its wind down toward adjournment in December. Our chief fear between now and then is that the congressional politicians will agree to some compromise and pass a version of the Medicare Prescription Drug Amendment.
We have worked hard to let the politicians know that the retirees affected by this legislation are very angry about certain of its provisions. Namely, under the Bill as originally written, companies would be free to withdraw its health benefit promises made to retirees who are Medicare eligible. There are a number of points in the Bill that we dislike, but this provision is the most onerous. I believe that our work and your letters, E-mails and calls have had an impact. In fact, I was in Washington last week, and I received enough comments to know that those contacts to your Congressmen and Senators have had an impact. I now believe that we may have as much as a 50-50 chance that this provision will be removed in the final version. We’ll know soon.
‘We’re Not Standing Along The Sideline’
In spite of this issue, we’re not standing along the sideline watching and hoping for the best. In aggregate, your National Retiree Legislation Network board members, general counsel and I spend considerable time on Capitol Hill and in the trenches opposing legislation harmful to retirees and those near retirement – and currently that legislation includes the Portman-Cardin Bill and Medicare Amendment.
As earlier reported, we testified before a panel of Treasury Department Officials (IRS), in opposition to their proposed change in their regulations that favor big business in the issue of the so called “cash balance pension plan”. Fundamentally, it’s a plan that penalizes older workers by not letting them continue to accrue benefits under a prior traditional benefit plan after years of employment. Additionally, we have called on the Secretary of Labor to investigate whether any of the companies seeking pension funding relief from Congress have committed fiduciary violations that caused the funding problems they seek to avoid.
We continue to promote our own legislative bill, The Emergency Retiree Health Benefit Protection Act (HR 1322), which is designed to stem the cut backs that retirees are suffering after retirement.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
So, you ask, “Where do we go from here”? I have been asked to voice and write my view on this – so here goes. I’ve been in this fight for over five years now – as president of one retiree association or another.
I’ve learned to describe this conflict we’re in as “war”. It’s a war being waged by corporate America against millions of retirees. It’s a war being fought on a number of fronts, including corporate management meetings, board rooms, Congress, the court system and within Federal agencies. Right in the middle of this conflict is the National Retiree Legislative Network (NRLN). This war, unlike the recent Gulf Wars, is not going to be a short one.
‘I’m Mad As Hell, And I’m Not Going To Take It Anymore.’
It took 11 years to pass the ERISA law. I don’t expect this to last that long, but we must plan for the long haul. There is no thought of giving up the fight. As one of the country’s most quoted military strategists, General George Patton, once said, “ I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for the man who lost and laughed.” I assure you the war we’re involved in is no laughing matter. My theme these days is “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
As we wind down another year, let me share with you my view as to where we are, where we’re going, and how to get there.
First of all, we have been very busy and modestly successful. We have all kinds of press interviews, live radio interviews; increasingly, we have questions from politicians seeking our advice. We have, at least temporarily, stemmed the tide on the cash balance issue, and we have garnered some support in opposition to the Portman-Cardin Bill which would allow the adoption of a pension funding relief discount rule sought by corporations. On all our issues, we have published strongly worded press releases to the 120 largest newspapers and wire services in the country. More and more we discover that the general public and members of Congress and their staffs are reading these. This is progress, but admittedly, it’s painfully slow.
WHERE SHOULD WE BE HEADED?
What should be our objectives and commitments for 2004? At a minimum, we should get HR 1322 out of Committee and on the floor of the House. It’s my view, that in order to do that, we must persuade at least two Republican Congressmen to sit down with us and Representative John Tierney to work out an acceptable compromise on the Bill, which Republicans can support.
Of course, we must retain the core objectives of the Bill. The next step would be to hold congressional public hearings on the merits of the Bill. We would then transport as many retirees as we could to Washington to testify as to their own experiences with their former employers and the suffering they have encountered. This should result in a lot of positive national publicity which, in turn, should translate into a larger membership base.
How Do We Communicate With Elected Representatives?
Next, let’s get serious about how we communicate with our elected representatives. I’ve become increasingly convinced, over the last few months, that Congress knows what our problems are and, furthermore, they know how to fix them. They have, unfortunately, to date, chosen to follow the dictates of the lobbyists employed by our former employers. Individual Congressmen have made many excuses as to why they can’t go along with our requests for support. What they really have been telling us is that they would rather take the money support from the business interests rather than our voting support. There are exceptions, of course. This is an obvious generalization. But, the point is, that the above is true for the vast majority of our elected representatives. This has been hard lesson for me to learn over the last few years.
How does this translate into meaningful actions? As I said earlier, we’re going to have to get serious as to how we communicate with our elected officials. When these Senators and Congressmen are home holding so called town hall meetings or other public gatherings, we go to those meetings, stand up and ask them where they stand on HR 1322 or any other retiree issues that you feel comfortable with.
Hopefully, the press will be in attendance. In a gentlemanly or lady like fashion, you must tell the candidate or the incumbent what you expect of him or her on your issues while in Washington. Furthermore, you tell them that if they don’t get it right, you will vote for someone who will. Remind them that there are some 10 million of us retirees in America and that we tend to vote during elections, and we are very angry about the manner in which we are being treated. In fact, may I suggest that you use my new slogan, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Of course, email, US mail or fax can communicate the same message – though somewhat less effectively. It must be done with passion and conviction. Believe me, folks, this is the kind of language they understand.
HOW DO WE GET ORGANIZED?
Now, lastly, how do we get ourselves organized and geared up for a big push in 2004 in order to make the progress we all desire? First of all, none of what follows has been discussed or approved by the NRLN Board of Directors.
It is my considered opinion based on my five years of serving the interests of retirees – the last two years as President of the NRLN – that we must make some rather aggressive adjustments in the manner in which we go about achieving our objectives. Please note that no Officer or Director receives compensation in any form for serving the NRLN. The General Counsel and his one-person staff, along with an Executive Secretary are paid contract employees. The President does receive reimbursement for minor office expense and the required infrequent travel. We need to do something about enhancing our presence in Washington. We simply cannot keep up with the traffic of legislation being introduced that affects retirees and at the same time develop new ideas and legislation for protective measures for our constituency.
We need a full time, paid Executive Director, living in Washington to manage our affairs inside the “Beltline”. In addition, we need a lobbyist to promote the issues of retirees. It should be obvious to everyone that we can’t play with the “big boys” without at least some of the tools that they have at their disposal.
We need a newsletter. There’s only one way to stay in touch and maintain the support of the members, and that’s by keeping them informed of what’s happening, how they’re affected and how they can help. For now, as we have in the past, we can get by inserting the “View from Washington” in newsletters of member organizations that have them – less than half do. Sometime next year, the NRLN would like to inaugurate its own newsletter.
Our email networks help, but only reach half of our members.
How do increase our strength?
We need to increase membership size and support staff. We have to compete against ERIC, an association that has greater lobbying strength and much deeper pockets for lobbying legislators and advertising its programs publicly. At this point, the NRLN can’t afford sending a newsletter to its two million members.
To grow, we can’t count on our future member base coming from retiree associations. We need American workers from all walks of life and all ages to provide financial support, vocal support and voting support. In order to expand, we need to gain widespread recognition as a leader in the field of retiree and older workers rights.
We have made much progress, but we need more exposure. We need to do some advertising, we need additional public relation help, and all this takes money.
How Do We Finance Growth?
We can do it by increasing dues to $5 or even $10 per year. AARP dues are $12 per year and they have 30 million members. What do they do specifically for retirees? Members receive discounts travel, entertaining and hotel and lodging.
As far as I can determine, the NRLN is the only game in town. There is nothing else around dedicated to the protection of retiree rights. Not even the AARP has the single focus we have, which is to legislate laws that protect retirees and older workers.
If you agree that our long-range goals can only be achieved by uniting in an effort to legislate laws that protect our interests – a dues increase, that costs less than most of us pay for a meal out, is a bargain.
I have thought long and hard about this and have concluded that we cannot, long term, achieve our objectives without leveling the playing field somewhat. Unless we were to become another AARP, we will never be able to match the business interests that are fighting us tooth and nail. ERIC is a lobbying group supported by the Fortune 500 companies. I read somewhere that their lobbying expense is about $100,000 per month.
We have had years of knowledge and experience behind us. We helped this country grow into the success it is today. Let’s put that experience and talent to work once again and help mobilize America and work against the corporate greed and deceit that threatens the financial security of all of us. If we can do that, as General George Patton would say, “I really pity those bastards …I really do.”