Backers of Social Security Overhaul Unveil Effort

Posted February 16, 2005 at 6:28pm

When President Bush arrived Wednesday at a Portsmouth, N.H., airplane hangar for a rally on Social Security reform, a friendly crowd of thousands turned out to greet him. Hundreds among them were locals recruited for the coordinated rollout of a campaign with big business — and big money — behind it.

The effort, called Generations Together, is designed to put a public face on a drive by the business lobbying community in Washington to increase support for the president’s plan and, in turn, apply pressure on the lawmakers who will decide its fate.

Organizers said that while thousands of individuals have already signed up for the group, they hope to see membership surge into the hundreds of thousands as the campaign progresses. The plan is to establish Generations Together in 21 states that are home to Members of Congress who will figure prominently in the debate.

The New Hampshire event offered an early indication of how the network will function. In addition to the presence of local people at the rally, Generations Together placed an editorial by former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) in the Manchester Union Leader and booked talk radio appearances for Derrick Max, the executive director of the campaign’s Washington parent, the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America’s Social Security.

John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, which launched CoMPASS, said that the total CoMPASS budget will cost $15 million to $20 million, with about 90 percent of that devoted to Generations Together. The remainder, he said, would likely be devoted to research projects. He declined to discuss how much has been raised so far.

Meanwhile, Generations Together announces its launch to the inside-the-Beltway crowd with advertisements today in Roll Call and The Hill and on Friday in National Journal.

Ads in local markets will begin appearing in March, said Tita Freeman, the Business Roundtable’s communications director.

Targeted Members who go home next week for the February recess can expect to see Generations Together members in force at their town hall meetings. Castellani said the group has already offered targeted Members informational assistance and experts to join them as they discuss Social Security.

In addition, the group will continue to bracket appearances by Bush as he barnstorms the country to push his plan to establish personal accounts for the federal retirement program.

Castellani said his group is not coordinating its efforts with the White House.

“We’re not part of the advance team,” he said. “And they’re not calling us or helping us set up events.”

Castellani added that CoMPASS is still pulling together a national advisory board for Generations Together. It already includes Leanne Abdnor, president of For Our Grandchildren, another grass-roots advocacy group; Sam Beard, founder of Economic Security 2000 and former aide to the late Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.); and Mack McLarty, chief of staff to then-President Bill Clinton.

As the battle over Social Security heats up, lobbying groups opposed to the president’s plan are directly engaging advocates on the other side. (See related story, page 1.)

Critics of the Bush plan scored their first victory earlier this month when the AFL-CIO pressured Edward D. Jones & Co., a Midwest brokerage firm, to withdraw from the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security.

The AWRS, a collection of corporations and trade associations that support the president’s plan, belongs to CoMPASS, but its efforts will complement that group’s grass-roots approach by focusing on lobbying inside the Beltway.

Responding to AFL-CIO-driven protests directed at member corporations — including those against Edward D. Jones — the AWRS last week removed the list of its members from its Web site.

The labor group’s protests continue today, with a rally staged in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., outside a conference of the Securities Industry Association, a trade association representing financial services firms. The association is an AWRS member.

About 100 protesters are scheduled to gather outside the conference’s waterfront hotel, with a flotilla of boats parking nearby to display protest banners.

William Patterson, director of the AFL-CIO’s Office of Investment, said his organization will also target such financial services firms as Wachovia, Charles Schwab and Waddell & Reed Financial for belonging to the AWRS.

“These contributors are seeking to obfuscate their involvement,” Patterson said. “They’re working through these front organizations to achieve what they’re denying, which is private accounts.”

The Business Roundtable has tightly held the details of its fundraising strategy for CoMPASS, but Freeman said the group has been “transparent about the amount of money we expect to spend.”

“The money is coming from the industry associations and the seniors associations who are part of the effort,” she said.