GOP Fails to Sabotage FCC Lifeline Broadband Aid For the Poor. For Now.

Republican-backed measures to end mobile phone subsidies are defeated.

|
Jun 22 2016, 2:14pm

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler can't stop winning. Image: TechCrunch/Flickr

Republican efforts to cripple a major federal program that helps poor people afford mobile phone and broadband service failed on Tuesday, after consumer advocates, public interest groups, and Democratic lawmakers mounted an all-out push on Capitol Hill to oppose the GOP proposals.

In a rare rebuke to the Republican majority leadership, the US House of Representatives voted to maintain federal subsidies that help low-income people afford mobile voice and internet service through the FCC's Lifeline program. A separate GOP-backed budget amendment that public interest groups warned could severely undermine the program was also withdrawn in the face of fierce opposition.

Late Tuesday, by a party-line vote of 207-143, the House rejected the End Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act, which was introduced by Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican. (Under House voting rules, the measure required a two-thirds supermajority to succeed.) The bill, which was vehemently opposed by House Democrats, would have killed Lifeline mobile voice and internet subsidies for poor people.

Michael Scurato, vice president for policy at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which supports the Lifeline program, said he was relieved that the "latest Lifeline attack bill failed and the harmful appropriations rider was withdrawn."

"I hope that this latest string of defeats will cause opponents to reconsider their priorities, but I suspect that we will need to remain vigilant for the foreseeable future," Scurato told Motherboard. "Unfortunately, as in the case of a number of other important, pro-consumer FCC actions lately, opposition seems to have become almost reflexive, with little thought given by opponents of what is in the best interest of their constituents or the country as a whole."

Tuesday's Lifeline vote was a surprising victory for public interest advocates who had warned that the Republican proposals—just the latest in a long-standing GOP campaign to undermine Lifeline—would disproportionately harm communities of color and other underserved groups that rely on mobile devices as their primary means of access to the internet.

"Happy to see House defeat a bill that would have cut the vital #Lifeline phone program," Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat who represents the Golden State's 35th district in the US Congress, tweeted after the vote.

The latest battle over Lifeline comes two months after the Federal Communications Commission voted to expand the Reagan-era program, which was originally designed to extend phone service to poor and rural areas, to include broadband internet access. Public interest groups say that the Lifeline broadband expansion could help close the nation's persistent "digital divide" between digital "haves" and "have-nots."

"Without internet access, students of color cannot do their homework, working single mothers cannot earn degrees online at night, and seniors and people with disabilities cannot utilize the most modern and accessible health care," the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote in a letter to Congress opposing the GOP measures.

Making sure that everyone has affordable access to communications networks is just as important as ever for our economy and our democracy.

The FCC voted to increase the Lifeline annual budget to $2.25 billion, and refrained from imposing a "hard cap" on the program, which means that the agency has the flexibility to increase the budget if necessary.

Republicans in Congress have long argued that Lifeline subsidies amount to a government handout to poor people that is rife with "waste, fraud and abuse," and Rep. Scott has made scaling back the program, which he derisively refers to as "Obamaphone," a personal mission.

"I have been fighting to end the unchecked spending and lack of accountability in the Lifeline Program since I came to Congress," Rep. Scott, who was elected during the Tea Party wave of 2010, said in a statement earlier this year. The congressman's office did not immediately return a request for further comment.

The Georgia Republican's now-withdrawn amendment would have reduced the Lifeline budget to $2 billion and set a hard cap on the program. (Scott had previously introduced the Controlling the Unchecked and Reckless Ballooning of Lifeline Act of 2016, which would have set a capped Lifeline budget at $1.5 billion, but that bill is stalled in committee.)

"Congress seems dead-set on killing Lifeline, though it was initiated under President Reagan and greatly expanded under President George W. Bush," Free Press policy director Matt Wood told Motherboard. "But making sure that everyone has affordable access to communications networks is just as important as ever for our economy and our democracy."'

Public interest groups argued that Rep. Scott's proposed Lifeline budget reduction and hard cap could have severe consequences during an economic downturn or after a natural disaster, when the number of people needing Lifeline could increase dramatically. Plus, the groups say, it's just a heartless thing to do to the nation's most vulnerable populations.

"This proposal undercuts the very principle of Universal Services and would deny eligible households of the benefit of affordable modern communications service," the National Consumer Law Center said in a statement, referring to Scott's budget amendment.

In Georgia's 8th District, which Rep. Scott represents, some 23 percent of the population live below the poverty line, including 33 percent of children and 25 percent of working-age women, according to the Center for American Progress. Nearly four out of ten African-Americans in Rep. Scott's district live in poverty.

"Lifeline can help those families, and others, stay connected," Scurato told Motherboard. "Allowing those families to call 911 makes Mr. Scott's district safer. Helping connect folks in those families to employers in his district makes his local economy stronger. These incessant attacks are counterproductive and, if successful, could do a great deal of harm."