Charles W. Jarvis, president and CEO of the right-wing lobbying organization USA Next, has been ubiquitous on TV news in recent days attacking the AARP and lobbying for President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security. These appearances have generally left the impression that USA Next is a grassroots, issue-based advocacy organization representing seniors. In fact, USA Next is something quite different: a Republican front group. Since its founding in 1991, the only common thread discernable in the group's diverse lobbying activities is aggressive, unconditional support for the Republican Party. The group has supported Republicans and attacked Democrats on issues as varied and seemingly distant from traditional seniors' issues as conservative judicial nominees, drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and abortion. Moreover, much of the group's funding comes from pharmaceutical companies, not individual seniors.
ABC's World News Tonight reported on USA Next's attacks against the AARP on February 28. While the report noted that the group had recently hired media consultants who orchestrated the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign against Sen. John Kerry, it did not mention that this is only the most recent event in the group's history of pro-Republican activism.
Such history was also unaddressed during Jarvis's February 25 appearance on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight; his February 23 appearances on CNN's Inside Politics and MSNBC's Hardball; and appearances on Fox News by Jarvis and USA Next national chairman Art Linkletter on February 7, 16, 17, 18, and 28. CNN identified USA Next as a "conservative lobbying group," and MSNBC introduced it as "a lobbying group that supports President Bush's Social Security plan," but Fox News, which has featured several interviews with representatives of the group, has consistently failed to identify USA Next as conservative, let alone partisan.
USA Next's recently launched $10 million advertising campaign against AARP follows the group's $4 million ad campaign in support of the Bush administration's prescription drug bill in 2002 and its $2 million ad campaign in support of President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 under its former name, the United Seniors Association (USA).
Beyond Social Security, USA Next has supported a range of initiatives with no apparent connection to seniors and little connection to one another beyond their place on a list of GOP priorities. Press releases on a wide range of other policy issues chronicle the group's support for Republicans and antagonism towards Democrats (the press releases are no longer available on USA's website):
- "Seniors See Senator Daschle as Roadblock to Economic Recovery" [1/8/2002].
- "Seniors Deplore Senate Loss of ANWR Vote" (expressed "disappointment and dismay at the Senate's vote against development of energy resources" in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) [4/19/02].
- "Democrats Doom Prescription Drugs for Seniors" [6/13/2002].
- "Senate Democrats Still Putting Politics Over People" [9/3/2002].
- "Estrada Vote a Sign of the Great Liberal Deathwish?" (condemned Democratic opposition to Bush judicial nominee Miguel Estrada) [2/10/2003].
- "Seniors Group Urges the House to Pass the Partial Birth Abortion Ban" [6/4/03].
Legendary conservative activist Richard Viguerie founded USA in 1991 to "bombard the elderly with tens of millions of solicitations, generating millions of dollars in fees for his private companies," according to a November 12, 1992, New York Times report. Far from a grassroots seniors organization, USA's "board and executives consist entirely of direct-mail experts and people active in conservative causes," the Times reported, and that the organization had been criticized by members of both parties for "preying on vulnerable old people with statements that distort the problems facing Social Security and Medicare, especially by exaggerating the threat to current retirees."
In 1995, USA worked with discredited Republican pollster Frank Luntz to craft a controversial memo on Medicare that referred to older Americans as "pack-oriented" and "susceptible to following one very dominant person's lead" [Washington Post, 7/23/1995]. In 1998, then-Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. William Roth (R-DE) described USA mailings that "told millions of senior citizens recent changes in Medicare posed a threat" as "a serious mistake. Roth added: "We are not here to try to scare senior citizens with respect to their health care" [Las Vegas Review-Journal, 2/27/1998]. In 2001, the Social Security Administration Office of Counsel to the Inspector General proposed a $554,196 fine against USA for mailing "at least 554,196 solicitations in envelopes that misused the Social Security Administration's program words and/or letters in violation of section 1140 of the Social Security Act." The Department of Health & Human Services Departmental Appeals Board imposed the fine in 2003.
Furthermore, Washington Monthly reported in May 2004 that "during the 2002 elections, with an 'unrestricted educational grant' from the drug industry burning a hole in its pocket, the group [USA Next] spent roughly $14 million -- the lion's share of its budget -- on ads defending Republican members of Congress for their votes on a Medicare prescription-drug bill." Other estimates vary, but all indicate that USA spent significant amounts on targeted advertising in support of Republicans during the 2002 congressional elections. The Associated Press reported that USA "was the nation's biggest spender on political TV ads, paying nearly $9 million for ads mainly supporting Republican candidates." The Center for Responsive Politics noted in December 2003: "Last year, the group reportedly spent $17 million to run political ads in tight congressional races." The center also noted that USA "made $66,000 in PAC contributions during the 2002 election cycle, all to Republicans."
Before joining USA Next in 2001, Jarvis worked for both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that USA Next "has ties to the Republican party. ... Other staff and board members worked as lobbyists for the Republican Party, are former GOP congressmen, or worked for conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family.