House Republicans advanced a bill Tuesday to cap the Federal Communications Commission’s recently expanded Lifeline budget, a move they say will stymie fraud and abuse in the program, and one Democrats say will harm poor Americans.
Lawmakers on the Communications and Technology Subcommittee held markup on the Controlling the Unchecked and Reckless Ballooning of Lifeline Act of 2016 (CURB Act) Tuesday afternoon, voting 17-11 to approve changes to the bill. The CURB Act caps Lifeline spending at $1.5 billion, down from the FCC’s recently expanded $2.25 billion.
Originally put in place to provide low-income Americans with a monthly subsidy to pay for phone service, the FCC voted along partisan lines in March to expand its reach to include Internet, at the same time boosting its budget with a mechanism for commissioners to review when it reaches a certain threshold, but doesn’t put a hard cap in place.
“All we’re asking for is a dose of fiscal discipline,” Oregon Republican and subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden said. “If there’s a budget in place, the FCC will be forced to undergo a more serious examination of the problems plaguing this system.”
Democrats on the committee accused Republicans of trying to deprive low-income Americans of vital services needed to participate in a 21st century economy, and inhibiting their access to life-saving services like 9-1-1.
“Why are we hurting these people?” California Rep. Anna Eshoo, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said during markup Tuesday, describing the legislation as “hurtful” and calling on her colleagues across the aisle to be “better than this.”
“You’re going to be taking away 9-1-1 services from them,” she continued. “Who wants to answer for that?”
Walden said he was offended Democrats would accuse Republicans of intentionally hurting the poor.
“I’ve done plenty for the poor,” Walden said. “I think the people paying the bill deserve protection too. Just like I think those that need help most among us need support. But I’m willing to do both.”
Walden and Georgia Republican Rep. Austin Scott, the bill’s author, say the legislation is aimed at protecting American consumers, who pay for Lifeline via fees on their monthly phone bills.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise said those people include struggling consumers like single parents ineligible for the subsidy, who face increasing Universal Service Fees to pay for government proposals like the Lifeline expansion.
Shortly after Lifeline was expanded to include wireless service, the program’s budget rose more than 25 percent per year from $821 million in 2008 to $2.1 billion in 2012.
The rise in cost came in part from rampant fraud and abuse from consumers to wireless providers. The FCC reported 41 percent of the program’s more than six million subscribers in 2012 failed to provide eligibility documentation, with many subscribers enrolling multiple times across different carriers with falsified information to get a free cellphone along with the subsidy.
At the same time, several small wireless providers were caught enrolling the same customers multiple times for profit, prompting the FCC to implement reforms in 2012 including a database to prevent duplicate enrollees and fining cheating providers $96 million for negligence and fraud. The changes prompted a budget reduction in 2014 to its current $1.6 million.
The committee voted down a Democratic amendment to delay the cap until the FCC reports on the effect of a smaller budget, but approved an amendment from Kentucky Democrat Rep. John Yarmuth prompting the Government Accountability Office to study whether the cap is effective in reducing fraud and abuse.
As part of the expansion the FCC included the creation of a single database to act as a “national eligibility verifier,” comprised of income eligibility information from federal programs like SNAP and Medicaid. The subsidy is limited to one per household, and providers must ping the database to confirm a potential subscriber is eligible before enrollment.
The bill now moves to a final committee vote for passage before moving to the House floor.