AARP members sporting bright red polo shirts blitzed Capitol Hill Wednesday, calling on senators and House members to shield Social Security and Medicare from budget cuts during this period of national belt-tightening.
AARP officials said more than 500 members came from 23 states — by bus from nearby states like Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia and by plane from as far away as Montana and Texas. In addition to the shirts, members wore stickers proclaiming "I am NOT a pushover — Cut waste, not Medicare and Social Security benefits."
Individual members left no doubt about the anti-pushover slogan, which also is being aired on television and radio advertisements this month.
The message being delivered to Congress by Boni Braunbeck, 65, of Missoula, Mont., was soft but firm: "Don't mess with us," she said.
A sign in the sea of red echoed the sentiment: "I will vote in November," it read — as if the members of Congress, many of whom are already positioning themselves for the elections next fall, needed a reminder about the political clout of America's seniors.
A congressional "super-committee" is charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in budget reductions, with or without tax increases, by Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving. If the committee fails, automatic budget reductions are supposed to kick in. The risk, now regarded as a possibility by some analysts, is that if the super-committee deadlocks, the entire deficit issue will be pushed into the election and not resolved until after the voting in 2012.
But members of AARP want to make sure Congress avoids cutting favored programs.
"It has to come completely off the table," Braunbeck said of Social Security. "It should not be part of the whole discussion."
As for Medicare, Braunbeck said the problem is rising health care costs in general, not just in Medicare. She said the Medicare program should not take the brunt of budget cuts because the health care system itself is too costly.
AARP's director of grassroots advocacy, Fred Griesbach, whipped the crowd up with a rousing speech, telling them that they represented "your community, your family, your children, your grandchildren and your friends.
"You represent millions of people!" he said before sending the red-shirted volunteers fanning out across Capitol Hill, delivering letters and leaflets to various congressional offices, making sure their representatives knew their sentiments.
"Today, our members reminded Congress that they are more than just numbers in a budget," said Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president. "Congress needs to understand that seniors have worked hard and paid into the system their whole lives in order to have secure health coverage and retirement income they can count on."
That's what worries Eunice and Paul Naugle, both of Linwood, Pa., who came to Washington to lobby. "We are here because of the Social Security and Medicare," Eunice Naugle, 72, said. "We don't want them to touch it. Leave it alone."
She said she is worried that she and her husband, Paul Naugle, 72, will not be able to afford medical care if Medicare is reduced or changed, or if doctors stop taking Medicare patients if their reimbursements are reduced.
Paul Naugle, a retired mechanic, said he has Crohn's disease and high blood pressure and requires medication and frequent doctor visits.
Reactions to the group's effort varied from office to office. A staffer in one congresswoman's office touted the representative's membership in the "senior caucus" and expressed sympathy for the AARP group. A staff member in another office took the literature and said he would "pass it to the appropriate LA [legislative assistant]."
Undeterred, the group moved on down the hallway. They had more members of Congress to see.
Also of interest: Latinos rely on Social Security. >>
Elaine S. Povich is a prize-winning Washington journalist.