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Republican attack on Lifeline runs into strong defense

26 Apr, 2013

The House Energy and Commerce Committee Communications Subcommittee held oversight hearings today on the FCC’s Lifeline phone subsidy program, and Republican leaders wasted no time in attacking the Reagan-era plan as the costly “Obama phone” that should be cut.

But Democrats pushed back, helped by a blizzard of support from labor, civil rights and technology groups.

Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) accused the FCC of spending over $2 billion of "other people's money" on Lifeline in 2012. Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn said that if she could she’d vote to end the program, and then wondered if perhaps the Boston Marathon bombers had been on Lifeline.

Probably an irrelevant question to the 8.6 million Americans who received Lifeline benefits in 2009. These were people who live on incomes at or below 135 percent of the poverty line – or who qualify for programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps or Supplemental Security Income. In other words, Americans in need, who are being helped with an average of $9.25 per household per month – all paid for out of a fee assessed on telecommunications companies and their customers.

In the beginning, Lifeline just paid for landlines, but in 2008, the Bush administration extended the same benefits to cellphones – which were often more accessible for low-income people. But it is the phone service, not the phones themselves, which receive the subsidy.

Therefore, Lifeline as an out-of-control welfare program runs afoul of facts. Politico looked closely at the program Republicans had accused of “dishing out free cellphones to the poor,” and found none of the criticisms actually held up. To wit:

  • The cellphone subsidy was added under George W. Bush.
  • Companies, as well as recipients, benefit.
  • Reforms have cracked down on violations.
  • Recipients have dropped by over 5 million in the last year.
  • It’s not paid for out of general funds.

Today ranking member Henry Waxman (D-CA) released a letter defending the program and the reforms that Democrats had enacted and introduced. Since its beginning, “Lifeline has helped millions of Americans living in poverty get home phone service. Without this assistance, these families would not be able to call for help in emergencies or participate fully in our economy.” He added that “… this relatively small subsidy has a big impact in keeping them connected.”

In addition, the coalition, Keeping Americans Connected to Opportunity (KACO), posted two letters to the committee, signed by a variety of citizen groups, including CWA, the ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Consumer Federation of America and the Alliance for Retired Americans – all asking that Lifeline be retained and funded. KACO also included fact sheets and links.

Speed Matters supports the continuation of Lifeline. As Representative Waxman said, “We have a national commitment to ensure every American has access to the communications services they need to fully participate in our economy and democracy.”

Throw Out the Lifeline? Republicans Question Program's Value (Multichannel News, Apr. 25, 2013)

'Obama phone' facts still a hang-up in Washington (Politico, Apr. 24, 2013)

Waxman Lifeline Letter (Apr. 25, 2013)

Keeping Americans Connected to Opportunity
(KACO) (website)


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