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By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues
Just days ago, Congressman David Cicilline, along with fellow lawmakers, Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Doris Matsui (D-CA), who serve as co-chairs of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Aging and Families, introduced H. Res. 583 to amend the rules of the House to establish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. This is the Rhode Island lawmaker’s fourth attempt, and it might well succeed with two co-chairs of the House Caucus Task Force on Aging and Families cosponsoring the resolution.
Getting Schakowsky and Matsui on board is “very significant,” says Cicilline. He also has the support of the prestigious Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Council on Aging Organizations (LCAO), representing 69 national aging groups.
The original House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, which was active between 1974 and 1992, conducted investigations, hearings and issues reports to inform Congress on issues related to aging, putting a legislative spotlight on the challenges and issues facing the growing aging population in America.
H. Res. 583 would reestablish the House Aging Committee without having legislative jurisdiction, this being no different than when the permanent committee previously existed. It would be authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care. These efforts impacted legislation taken up by standing committees. It has been referred to the House Rules Committee for consideration.
It’s relatively simple to create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee, says the Congressional Research Service. All it takes is a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other issues that need to be address. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.
An Urgent Time Requires Passage of H. Res. 583
“America’s seniors have spent a lifetime working hard and moving our country forward and they deserve the best in their retirement,” says Cicilline. “The pandemic has disproportionately impacted seniors and now with growing concerns about inflation, seniors on fixed incomes will bear the burden of the rising cost of prescription drugs, food, housing, and other essentials,” he says, noting there has never been a more urgent time for Congress to reauthorize the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging than right now.
“The pandemic magnified gaps in U.S. policy that routinely forget about Older Americans and the need to nurture a culture that respects them. From the lack of a universal long-term care policy to barriers to vaccine access earlier in the pandemic, these are issues that need to be examined so that Congress can put forward strong solutions to support our aging population and the communities they live in,” says Schakowsky.
“Older Americans today face many difficulties—including achieving retirement security and affording the rising costs in health care and prescription drugs—which have only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Matsui, stressing by creating a House Aging Committee Congress can continue to strengthen and support policies that are important to seniors throughout the country.
Supporters Call on House Resolution’s Passage
As the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), the preeminent national organization representing and focused on the well-being of older adults, noted in its letter of support for reestablished the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, “now is the opportune time to reestablish the HPSCoA. Every day, 12,000 Americans turn 60. By 2030, nearly 75 million people in the U.S.—or 20% of the country—will be age 65 or older. As America grows older, the need for support and services provided under programs like Social Security, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act also increases.”
“We strongly support Cicilline’s legislation to re-establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. This committee did crucial work on behalf of American seniors between 1974 and 1992, including investigating nursing home abuse, promoting breast cancer screening for older women, improving elderly housing, and bringing attention to elder abuse, among other issues,” says Max Richtman, president and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, warning that “we should not wait another day to re-establish a committee dedicated to protecting America’s seniors.”
“Cicilline is 100% right that it is time to re-establish this vital committee, with ten thousand Americans turning 65 every day, amid a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on seniors. Today, there are a new set of issues that demand the attention of a dedicated House committee — prescription drug pricing, long-term care, soaring medical costs and the future of Social Security and Medicare,” adds Richtman.
Bob Blancato who had the longest tenure of any staff on the Committee said: “First I commend Cicilline for introducing the legislation. The timing was especially good as the release yesterday of the 2020 Census data shows a continued sharp increase in the number of older Americans in our nation.”
“While I support this legislation it does face considerable odds to gain passage,” warns Blancato, noting that two things could change that. “The resolution must have backing from House Leadership especially from Speaker Pelosi and it must become bipartisan as the original Committee was. In the end it is about how do advocates make this into a political issue. This is an opportunity for the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations to show if it has clout,” he says.
Adds, CEO Sandy Markwood, of National Association of Area Agencies on Aging: “We are a rapidly aging nation: one in five Americans will be age 65 or older within this decade. This historic demographic shift requires policymakers and the public to factor in aging and how we can age well at home and in the community into every policy conversation. For this, the House of Representatives should have a special aging committee as the Senate does: to spotlight not only older Americans, but also the impact of this massive shift on all generations, our communities and society at large. COVID-19 shone a bright spotlight on what we need to do to help older adults age well at home, but local aging leaders like n4a’s members need the House’s leadership to give aging policy the focused attention it deserves…and our demographics demand.”
According to Robert S. Weiner, a close friend and confident of House Aging Committee Chair Claude Pepper (D-Florida) who served as his committee Chief of Staff, the Special Committee was and can again be the protector of seniors. “Among its most significant actions — all bipartisan– were advocating and causing enactment of the law, passed 359-2 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate, barring age based “mandatory retirement and protecting people over 40 from age discrimination,” he remembers.
“The courts are now fudging with that clear intent, and the House Aging Committee would be a visible and influential protector. Transparency by nursing homes and congregate housing settings– as mandated by laws pressed by Pepper decades ago but now ignored — would be another benefit,” states Weiner. “In housing, health care, nutrition, crime victimization, transportation, accessibility, and social services –in the whole array of actions stopping ageism by local, state, and federal agencies and the courts, including the Supreme Court — the House Aging Committee would again be an invaluable champion for seniors,” he adds.
“During the 117th Congress, passing H Res. 583 is also necessary to protect against under-the-radar political invasions of Social Security’s surplus — a fund paid by seniors in the program– and attempts to use the money to pay for other programs including tax cuts for the wealthy,” warns Weiner.
As a long-time Washington insider, Weiner says the best way to pass H Res 583 to reestablish the House Aging Committee is for the chief congressional advocate, Cicilline, to talk directly with the top three House leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD and Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and makes the case on the merits and bill’s support while asking for quick endorsement. “Looking back, “that’s how Pepper always did it – he’d pull people to a place on the floor and talk with them there, or on the phone.
Weiner recalled how Pepper, the fierce aging advocate from Florida, called Rosalyn Carter to ask her husband, President Jimmy Carter for a meeting to discuss the mandatory retirement Carter who ultimately endorsed the bill. It passed the House 359-2 and the Senate 89-10, being considered by Congress. Ultimately, “the full House Aging Committee (40 members) met with and there was a glorious White House signing ceremony,” he says.
A Call for House Leadership Support
Cicilline goes into the 117th Congress with the support of long-time Congressional senior advocates, Schakowsky and Matsui and the backing of a prestigious coalition aging organizations to bring back the House Aging Committee. It will happen this Congress if House Speaker Pelosi along with Majority Leader Hoyer and Whip Clyburn can bring the moderates and progressives of the Democratic House Caucus together to support H. Res. 583.
Politically it’s the smart thing to do. It’s a winning policy issue for America’s seniors and this group has traditionally been the highest turnout age group in elections. But, more important, it’s the right thing to do especially at a time when seniors have been a disproportionately impacted by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
I say pass H. Res. 583.
Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.