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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.
In September 2004, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who voted against the prescription drug program, took to the floor to criticize RetireSafe for paying health care consultants to publicly endorse the program through DCI Group, a Washington consulting firm. At the time, DCI Group also represented PhRMA, one of the most vocal supporters of Part D, federal records show.
A spokesman for DCI Group did not respond to Roll Call’s request for comment, but Phillips said his organization has no relationship with the firm.
Today, RetireSafe is opposing Democratic efforts to require drug manufacturers to pay a rebate to the government for drugs sold to low-income seniors through Medicare Part D. The move is fiercely opposed by the pharmaceutical industry.
The organization’s Republican and industry ties also raise questions about its independence.
Al Cors Jr., RetireSafe’s vice president, served as the vice president for government affairs at the National Taxpayers Union, directed legislative and political affairs for the National Tax Limitation Committee and lobbied for the National Rifle Association.
Marianne Eterno, a RetireSafe board member, is the assistant vice president of government relations at the Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Co., a health, accident, life and special risk insurance company based in Illinois. Her biography on the company’s website says she is “very active in the various industry associations” such as America’s Health Insurance Plans and the American Council of Life Insurers.
Jim Marquez, another RetireSafe board member, served as general counsel for the Transportation Department during the Reagan administration, and Charles Partridge, also on the board, served on former President George W. Bush’s presidential transition advisory team.
Phillips dismissed the accusations and noted that RetireSafe has given its award to 11 Democrats.
“RetireSafe and its board of directors support a broad spectrum of issues that impact older Americans, including Social Security, health care, their financial well-being and personal security,” he said. “We have always been focused on these issues and have supported and will continue to support those in Washington who stand with us, regardless of their party affiliation.”
In 2010, the group reported spending more than $600,000 on grass-roots lobbying and direct lobbying of the legislative and executive branches, according to documents filed with the IRS. Phillips and Cors are registered to lobby on behalf of RetireSafe.
It has also sided with other seniors groups, such as AARP, in several instances.
RetireSafe opposes raising the retirement age and is fighting for the repeal of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a 15-member unelected panel established by the new health care law and charged with reducing the growth of Medicare. More than 200 House lawmakers, including a growing number of Democrats, the most recent of whom is Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), have co-sponsored a bill that would do away with the panel.
But Phillips, like most Republicans, said the advisory board is not the only problem with the health care law and that repeal is likely the best option.