Sometimes Congress gets it right and should be praised. The cynical among you might say it is their job to get it right — and you would be correct. But remember, this is 2015, when political dysfunction usually reigns.
That is why advocates for seniors are agog over the Senate health committees’ warp-speed unanimous approval in late January reauthorizing the Older Americans Act.
The act supports nutrition and critical social services for more than 12 million seniors nationally, including more than 1 million senior meals annually in San Diego County. The Older Americans Act, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, should have been reauthorized five years ago, but has been caught up in partisan battles.
Even more amazing than the speed was the unlikely quartet of senators who drafted the reauthorization. Copious credit must be given to health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., who cut through the “fog of rhetoric” and pulled support from the right, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. It is hard to imagine a more diverse spectrum of political views.
“I’m glad that we could come together in a bipartisan manner to reauthorize a bill that supports our seniors in leading healthy, independent lives,” Murray said.
“From putting in place stronger elder abuse protections to ensuring funding for senior meals, the Older Americans Act makes critical improvements to programs that are lifelines for seniors across the country. I look forward to the Senate moving quickly to pass this legislation.”
Burr echoed those sentiments: “The Older Americans Act is an important law for many of our seniors, particularly our most vulnerable. I’m pleased that the committee is swiftly moving this legislation, ensuring that services reach those who most need it.”
With such bipartisan support, it is widely assumed the full Senate will approve the bill in the next few weeks. But before we begin a bipartisan rendition of “Kumbaya,” the House of Representatives must consider reauthorization.
Over the past five years of debate, there has been no particular commitment in the House to pass the legislation. Given the lack of interest, it almost begs the question of whether members of the House are paying attention to their senior constituents.
Leaders of both parties should remember, according to exit polling in last November’s midterm elections, there were twice as many voters older than 60 than under 30. Republicans, specifically, should take note that seniors voted for GOP candidates by a 55 percent margin. This should be incentive enough to expeditiously pass a bill that feeds nutritious meals to seniors, protects them from elder abuse and provides job training skills.
It should also be motivation to fund Older Americans Act programs appropriately. The congressional appropriation for the act is the same as it was in 2010, despite the fact that 10,000 people a day turn 65 in the United States.
There is good news from the White House on funding. President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2016 calls for a $138 million increase in Older Americans Act funding, including an additional $60 million investment in senior nutrition. The House has not yet presented its FY16 budget. Most observers expect, however, that it will propose a sixth year of flat funding for these critical programs.
An optimist might see hope of a compromise between a zero dollar increase from the House and the president’s $138 million increase. Even splitting the difference would be an important gesture of support to the nation’s elderly and the people who care about them.
So Congress, how about singing a verse of “Kumbaya”?
Downey is president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty. Learn more at www.servingseniors.org.