This fall, a little-known group called RetireSafe honored more than 20 vulnerable Republican Members of Congress for supporting senior citizens.
Local news reports and campaign advertisements soon trumpeted the awards.
RetireSafe bills itself as a nonpartisan senior citizens advocacy organization, but it is led by former Bush and Reagan administration officials, small-government activists and pharmaceutical industry lobbyists and consultants. It is funded at least in part by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry’s chief lobbying group, and at times has served as a third-party entity to validate the industry’s agenda.
With a relatively modest budget — just more than $2.5 million in 2010 — RetireSafe’s awards provided these Republicans with valuable political cover for supporting controversial bills, such as the budget proposed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that would have dramatically revamped Medicare. The award, which sounds a lot like an endorsement that could come from one of dozens of other seniors groups, can then be used as a credential on the campaign trail.
“The average voter does not have enough time to know whether RetireSafe is a real group or a fake one,” said Charlie Chamberlin, political director of Democracy for America, the grass-roots liberal organization set up by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. “That’s worth a lot of money.”
Doug Thornell, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, said, “Right-wing front groups like RetireSafe can spend little money but still impact races by just having Orwellian-sounding names and slick mailers that try to dupe seniors into supporting positions that run counter to their best interests.”
RetireSafe is an outgrowth of the Council for Government Reform, an organization established in 1991 to promote small-government principles. In 2003, amid the debate over the Medicare prescription drug subsidy program known as Part D, the group rebranded itself as a senior citizens advocacy group.
The group claims to have about 400,000 members but does not collect any dues and is funded entirely by grants and contributions, which it does not disclose and declines to discuss.
“Historically, RetireSafe receives less than 10 percent of its revenue from high-dollar donors,” said Thair Phillips, president of RetireSafe. He declined to elaborate on what qualifies as “high dollar” and would not discuss the corporations that support the group.
Federal records show that the bulk of RetireSafe’s expenditures, about $2.2 million, go to direct mail such as the flier that voters in Michigan received this fall praising freshman Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) for protecting Part D. Other Republican freshmen who have won awards from RetireSafe include Reps. Jon Runyan (N.J.), Allen West (Fla.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.).
PhRMA has long supported RetireSafe, contributing $88,000 to the organization during the past three years, according to federal filings. While that is small change from PhRMA’s standpoint, it is a sizable contribution compared with RetireSafe’s more modest budget. PhRMA gives away millions of dollars in charitable grants every year. In 2010, for example, PhRMA gave $4.5 million to the American Action Network — a conservative political organization — and $1.2 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.
From the start, RetireSafe’s mission seemed to parallel the goals of the industry groups that fund it.