Private Account Critics Huddle

Posted April 13, 2005 at 6:50pm

The myriad outside groups that oppose President Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security met in Washington, D.C, on Wednesday to formalize their plans to ratchet up activity on the issue in the remaining days before an April 26 hearing on the issue by the Senate Finance Committee.

The gathering, held at the downtown headquarters of the National Education Association, was intended to counter the White House’s recent announcement that it is transitioning over the next month from convincing the American people that there is a problem to discussing solutions.

“This meeting was designed first and foremost to maintain a unified front against privatization and remind all the groups not to be lulled into this phony Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the campaign,” said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for Americans United to Protect Social Security, one of the umbrella organizations behind the effort.

Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, dismissed Wednesday’s meeting as simply the latest stage of the “scare campaign” being run by Democrats.

“Americans understand we must act now and want leaders who offer ideas rather than rhetoric,” Schmitt added.

Even so, opposition to the president’s privatization proposal has spurred remarkable unity among typically fractious liberal interest groups.

Aside from AUPSS, representatives from AARP, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, the Center for American Progress, AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Campaign for America’s Future and a handful of other groups attended Wednesday’s gathering.

A number of staffers from Democratic House and Senate offices who are taking a lead role in the Social Security debate also attended.

A PowerPoint presentation from the meeting, a copy of which was obtained by Roll Call, announces that the days between now and the April 26 hearing of the Senate Finance Committee mark “a critical turning point in the battle.”

“We have them on the run,” reads the last slide of the presentation. “Now we must pursue them until we win.”

Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has said the April 26 hearing will be the first legislative step toward producing a bill. A full version could be taken up by the full chamber by late June or July.

Although it went unmentioned in the Wednesday slideshow, Americans United has several million dollars on hand that can be used to fund this and future efforts. Because of its tax filing status as a nonprofit organization, the group does not have to disclose its donors and can accept contributions in unlimited sums.

Pro-privatization forces are active and well funded in their own right. Progress for America, one of the leading groups supporting Bush’s plan, spent approximately $5 million in March alone.

The 14-day “mobilization against privatization” campaign will incorporate polling and most likely a media campaign aimed at five Republican members of Finance: Grassley, plus Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.).

The coalition also plans to bring pressure to bear on Reps. Jim Nussle, Jim Leach and Tom Latham, all Republicans from Iowa.

Within the next week, Americans United will be conducting polls in each of the five states with targeted Members, to gauge public support for the tenets of Bush’s plan.

Woodhouse said that Snowe, who has so far sided with Democrats against carving out private accounts in the retirement system, will likely find that the polling numbers “reassure her that her constituents are with her.”

For the others, the data will be used to convince them to oppose any plan that includes private accounts.

In addition to the polling, the anti-privatization coalition is planning “citizen storming of state and district offices” and “recruitment of business, senior and other constituent group leaders to contact Senators,” according to the PowerPoint presentation.

A paid advertising campaign to complement those efforts also appears likely, although officials at ProtectYourCheck.org, the group tasked with handling the anti-privatization media effort, would not confirm any specifics.

“It is something we are having conversations with our partners about,” said Protect YourCheck.org spokesman Erik Smith. “We think the idea has merit.”

The group is currently running ads on national cable television portraying the Bush plan as an iceberg, only the tip of which is visible.

Americans United released an Internet ad Tuesday that claims the Bush plan relies on “Enron-like accounting” — a reference to the now-defunct Houston energy giant.

The culmination of the anti-privatization campaign will come April 26, which is being dubbed “Hands off my Social Security Day” by the coalition. Rallies are planned in 35-40 states to coincide with the Senate hearing.