Washington — 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.
''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.
Some attribute this growth to sheer demographics, saying that it represents the graying of America - a population of senior citizens whose size has increased eightfold since 1900, while the total US population tripled. But most think the new lobby members are, in the words of NARFE's Ms. Park, ''politically astute - they know how the system works'' and are joining in a fight to protect the gains of the '70s against the cuts of the '80s.
Although the focus of each group varies with its members, many say they plan to pit their increased numbers and influence against the American Medical Association in a fight to protect medicare over the next few years. The AARP and NCSC are both planning major campaigns to contain costs in the health-care field. And both are scheduling hearings on the failing medicare system. ''Medicare costs are just a symptom of the problem,'' says AARP's spokesman.
It remains to be seen how effective these fights will be, but it is clear that a united front in the gray lobby can turn legislation around. One sample of this came in 1981, when the Reagan administration proposed major cuts in social security. A coalition of gray lobby groups under the banner ''Save Our Security'' sent the word out to literally millions of its members.
Capitol Hill was ''deluged'' with letters, says AARP's Mr. Hughes, including one from a senator's mother. ''He stood on the floor of the Senate and said his mother was a member of AARP and had read our action alert. She had written to tell him he couldn't cut her social security,'' says Mr. Hughes, with obvious glee.
Such letters from home, say congressmen and staff people, carry the real clout of the gray lobby. ''Sometimes we check with the aging-groups when we want to know where the aging-community stands on an issue - it's faster than going out to the community itself,'' says a Senate Aging Committee aide. ''But the bottom line is how does the senior citizen back home feel?''
Says NCSC's Eric Shulman, ''Most members of Congress don't really care what some lobbyist feels. But if we can get our members to write in first and then come in saying the same thing, it carries a lot of clout.''
The real power of the senior citizen groups seems to stem from their ability to inform their members of congressional activity. ''They don't have to shake their fist in your face,'' says Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida, former head of the House Aging Committee, who is referred to as ''Mr. Senior Citizen.''
''Where they get you is in your voting record,'' he says. ''You know that once you've voted on an issue, they're going to tell the folks back home about it.''
Two organizations - the National Council of Senior Citizens and the National Alliance of Senior Citizens - send out score cards of congressional votes on issues each considers pertinent to the welfare of the senior citizen. The council, a pro-labor group that advocates social welfare programs like medicare, tends to give big scores to liberals. The alliance, which calls itself ''moderate to conservative'' and says it ''believes in protecting the middle class,'' gives top scores to more conservative congressmen (Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina is one of its 100 percent winners).
AARP - the high scorer in members, with nearly 15 1/2 million dues payers - tries to stay apolitical but carries a lot of influence on Capitol Hill ''because of the numbers, and because they do their homework,'' says a committee aide. Its magazine and newsletter try to keep members up to date on issues, but its legislative aides admit that ''you can't get to 15 1/2 million people quickly.'' Instead, they send out an action alert to roughly 18,000 leaders - enough, they say, to generate the kind of mail support they need.
Other organizations, such as the National Council on the Aging, concentrate on bringing congressmen to senior citizen centers and homes to ''put faces behind those numbers,'' says Ms. Beshgetoor of the NCOA. And groups like the Gray Panthers also put on rallies and workshops to educate the public and focus media attention on the concerns of the elderly.
All of these methods seem to be increasing senior citizens' participation in the political process - and making congressmen ''increasingly sensitive to their needs,'' says Isabel Cranston of the Senate Aging Committee, ''because they vote , and because issues that involve the elderly involve all of us sooner or later.''