With federal budget negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” perceived to pose a serious threat to retirement benefits, an industry lobbying group is rapidly building grassroots support to preserve them.

The Arlington, Virginia–based American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries (ASPPA), which represents 11,000 professionals who service 401(k) plans — including plan administrators, consultants, attorneys, actuaries and accountants ­— has launched a “Save My 401(k)” campaign whose goal is to generate 250,000 email messages from participants in 401(k) plans to their members of Congress over the coming six months, according to Brian Graff, executive director and chief executive officer of ASPPA. The campaign has generated close to 40,000 email messages so far.

“Participants are helping us deliver the message that retirement incentives are important and [members of Congress] need to be very careful if they are thinking of cutting them,” Graff says.

The campaign’s scope appears to be unprecedented in the world of Washington organizations that defend retirement benefits. “Nothing like that has been tried before in the retirement world,” contends Graff.

The target audience for the campaign is large — 70 million plan participants. “We wanted to get regular participants, average Americans, who care about their 401(k)s to express their concerns to their members of Congress,” Graff explains.

ASPPA began considering a grassroots campaign early in the year, as members began to worry that Congress might severely curtail limits on tax-deferred contributions to 401(k) plans in the ongoing and contentious battle over federal budget deficits in Washington.

The current annual limit for individual contributions to 401(k) plans is $17,000, while employees aged 55 and older can make an additional catch-up contribution of $5,500. The overall annual limit for employee contributions plus employer-matching contributions and profit sharing is $50,000.

For maximum impact, the campaign was timed to launch just as talks over the fiscal cliff began to heat up and dominate news coverage. The campaign will be continuing well into next year because ASPPA also wants to influence the debate over the potential course of broad tax reform efforts that many now expect in the new Congress.

Over the last year leaders within the 401(k) service industry and ASPPA began to put together the details of how a campaign might work, taking cues from President Obama’s use of social networks in his reelection campaign.