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Older Americans find they can make Uncle Sam listen

By Deborah ChurchmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 1984


Older people in this country have a very high voting participation rate, and they have the time to write a letter to their congressman,'' says Tanya Beshgetoor of the National Council on the Aging (NCOA), one of the two dozen-plus groups in the so-called ''gray lobby'' stalking the corridors of Washington.

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''So, on the one hand, they have a lot of power - a lot of clout on Capitol Hill,'' she asserts. At the same time, she points out, the 26 million senior citizens 65 and over (36.1 million if you include those 60 and older) in the United States constitute ''one of the most vulnerable parts of society.''

Judy Park, senior lobbyist with the half-million-member National Association of Retired Federal Employees (NARFE), thinks that senior citizens are ''too often put outside the total societal picture.'' Even when they're included, she says, their image is one of being ''poor and sick. It's forgotten that these are thinking, competent, participating members of society.''

She believes that false image does a lot of damage to a sector whose influence, according to many Capitol Hill observers, is growing.

''All congressmen at some point are advocates for the elderly today,'' points out one gray lobbyist, ''because seniors are a major part of their voting constituency.''

Millions of senior citizens are increasing their political influence by joining with gray lobby groups like the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) or the National Council of Senior Citizens (NCSC), whose legislative staffs testify regularly at congressional hearings and press congressmen on a plethora of issues - pensions, social security benefits, medicare, housing, crime, fraud against the elderly.

Such issues affect not just the elderly but all society, points out Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. ''These are not just issues of aging Americans,'' he has said elsewhere, ''but of an aging America.''

His 15-member committee and its 60-member twin in the House (said to be one of the most prestigious committee assignments there) review every major bill impinging on the older community. Although neither committee has legislative authority, staff members point out that they can serve as springboards for bills. As a spokesman for the House committee put it, ''If a piece of legislation comes out of here with committee support, that's 60 votes - a big chunk of votes in the House.''

The life of the House's Aging Committee, started in 1974 to educate congressmen on the problems of the elderly, is a history-in-miniature of the gray-power movement. ''Back then, people thought of problems of the elderly strictly as health care and social security,'' says AARP's Peter Hughes. ''They didn't realize how badly things like inflation'' affect retirees.

The committee did investigative work in nursing homes, with David H. Pryor (D) of Arkansas, then a US representative, now a senator, working in one as an orderly to expose abuses. It also helped promote major pieces of legislation, such as increased medicare and a lift in the age of mandatory retirement from 65 to 70.

''The '60s was the decade of youth, and the '70s was the decade of the aging, '' says Mr. Hughes, explaining how the fledgling committees and tiny lobbying staffs managed to push through major legislation. (''It was just me and a secretary when I started,'' Mr. Hughes says of his 22-member staff.) ''Also, many programs aimed at the elderly grew out of a time when we were winding down from Vietnam, and there were a lot more resources freed up to put into programs, '' he explains.

Now, says a spokesman for the House Aging Committee, ''we have to compete for every dollar.'' That, plus the present administration's push to decrease spending in the service sector, has made the work of gray lobbyists one of ''damage control,'' Mr. Hughes says, ''just trying to hold on to what we've got.''

Ironically, Mr. Hughes and others face this defensive fight for government funds with more members, staff, and money than ever before. NARFE, which lobbied strenuously against incorporating its members in the social security system (a fight it lost), doubled its membership this past year and roped in an average contribution of $24 to its $310,000 political-action committee (PAC) in 1983. And the National Council of Senior Citizens, which started a PAC this past September, has already gathered nearly $250,000 to distribute to pro-aging congressmen.