This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," March 30, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.
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BRIT HUME, HOST: The White House woke up this morning to further unwelcome news about the extent of the AARP's efforts to block the president from using private investment, as a way to generate bigger returns for future Social Security (search) recipients whose regular benefits may have to be cut.
That news came in a story in "The Washington Post," written by our colleague and FOX News contributor, Jeff Birnbaum, who joins me now.
Jeff, tell me about the campaign that AARP is waging, what it consists of, what we can look for from it. It was interesting to see that in Cedar Rapids today, a place far from AARP's headquarters in Washington, they were able to turn out a little sort of counter crowd during the president's event.
JEFF BIRNBAUM, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Right. Well, actually, everywhere the president goes AARP is going to be there. And they were certainly there in force in Iowa. There were two press conferences, a new national poll; radio, TV, and newspaper advertisements, all attacking President Bush's private accounts as part of Social Security. That's the main part of his plan that AARP opposes.
But that's just for starters, really. AARP is also holding forums on this issue in every state where there's a swing vote senator, a senator whose vote is up for grabs on this issue. And almost everywhere that a member of Congress holds a town hall meeting on this issue, AARP volunteers are dispatched by the headquarters.
HUME: To do what, exactly?
BIRNBAUM: To protest the president's plan on private accounts and to talk up the AARP's version of a fix for Social Security. Which is a little here, a little there, no big — no major change needed to fix Social Security over the long term.
HUME: Does the AARP plan, by the way, add up?
BIRNBAUM: No. Well, the answer is no, because it isn't a complete plan. It just proposes add-on private accounts and...
HUME: It's not a fiscal — it's not a — it doesn't fix the fiscal problem, the solvency problem.
BIRNBAUM: It has some — AARP proposes a menu of possible options, but hasn't said that it's wedded to any one.
HUME: Sort of like the president.
BIRNBAUM: Which is exactly like the president, except for this disagreement on the carve out private accounts. And maybe there's some wiggle room for compromise.
HUME: Well, is it, given AA — what we see here, the question arises is how does the AARP stack up in terms of potent Washington lobbies? People have heard about the gun lobby, the NRA, which has many successes to its credit, labor has been potent over the years, certain business organizations. You've been an aficionado of the lobbying industry for a long time. How does the AARP rank in your view?
BIRNBAUM: It is an acquired taste.
HUME: Right. I'm sure.
BIRNBAUM: But nonetheless, for years at "Fortune" magazine did a survey. And in most of the years we did of who has the most clout in the capitol, AARP was No. 1. There was only one year where the National Rifle Association beat them. But I would say without question AARP is the most powerful lobby and without — and there's no one who doubts that it's the most powerful influential lobby on Social Security and Medicare, the issues that affect the elderly.
HUME: The president got Medicare prescription drug benefit passed. AARP was with him on that.
BIRNBAUM: That's right. And AARP...
HUME: Could he have done it without them?
HUME: Can he do this, in your view, without — can he get private accounts into Social Security without AARP, with AARP dead set against it?
BIRNBAUM: No. In my view, how and whether the president gets a fix on Social Security is I think dependent on AARP being a part of that solution.
HUME: Couple of questions about what AARP is. It used to stand for American Association of Retired Persons.
HUME: It now does not. It just stands for AARP.
HUME: Just four letters.
BIRNBAUM: That's it. Because it's so well known.
HUME: Now, is this an association of people who came together as a — and sort of gathered around a basket of issues? Is that how this organization was formed?
BIRNBAUM: No. This is mostly a — anyone can join the AARP once you turn 50 years old. In fact, most people get a solicitation to join. A lot of people, I would say it's fair to say most people join for the discounts, for which it's very famous. Polls of members...
HUME: In other words, people don't join this organization for the reason they might join a labor union or political party, or a political organization that might support certain causes.
HUME: They join for the same reasons they might join the Price Club or Costco.
BIRNBAUM: That's right. But they do have in common that they care about issues for the elderly. And the way the AARP staff in Washington keeps track of what these members want is the staff suggests solutions to things. They poll intensely the members. They do focus groups and try to keep in touch with their members. And it doesn't always work.
HUME: Because they don't have any direct electing — election process by which the members — by which the lords of the AARP are selected. Right?
BIRNBAUM: They have a very elaborate board setup that tiered so that there is a lot of input from members. But it's very hard to keep track of what 35 million people want. And that's how many members the AARP has. Ten times more, by the way, than the National Rifle Association.
What AARP does have in addition to a lot of members is a lot of money. Their operating budget last year was $8,000 million.
HUME: Where does it get the money?
BIRNBAUM: And it gets it from dues, but also from profit-making businesses from which they get royalties. They made $349 million last year alone from that.
HUME: But it's not a profit-making enterprise overall, right?
BIRNBAUM: No. It's a nonprofit that has a taxable unit, that's these royalty-producing businesses. The AARP endorses these businesses and gets a sliver of the amount that's collected by those businesses.
HUME: Can it legally spend whatever it wants to defeat this? Whatever it wants?
BIRNBAUM: Yes. It can...
HUME: There's no campaign finance reform.
BIRNBAUM: No. And they don't have to actually tell us how much. Quite clearly, on ads alone, they've already spent $15 million or more this year, which is three-quarters of the budget of the largest organization pushing Bush's proposal. So, they can outspend anyone.
HUME: Jeff, thank you.
BIRNBAUM: Thank you.
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