Wireless carriers and public interest groups are praising the results of a House floor vote Tuesday in which legislation prohibiting the FCC from distributing Lifeline services for wireless broadband services was defeated. Brought to the House floor under a suspension of the rules, the End Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act (H.R. 5525) had been introduced earlier this month by Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) in an effort to combat waste, fraud and abuse of the Universal Service Fund Lifeline Program, which cost taxpayers and the federal government $476 million during 2015. In 1985, the FCC established the Lifeline program to provide eligible low income households with a monthly subsidy to offset the cost of fixed telephone service. Wireless voice services were added to the Lifeline program within the past decade. The FCC adopted rules in March to extend the program to both fixed and wireless broadband. A separate House measure under consideration would maintain the current cap on Lifeline funding at $1.5 billion per year.
Under suspension of House rules that require a two-thirds majority vote, H.R. 5525 failed to pass in spite of the voting margin of 207 for and 143 against. (Eighty-four House lawmakers were absent during the vote.) Unveiling the bill, Scott told reporters that, while he supports efforts to promote the availability of wireless broadband services, “Congress has a responsibility to stand up” in the face of Lifeline program abuse. Asserting, however, that “nearly three quarters of a billion dollars in waste, fraud, and abuse” have been eliminated from Lifeline during the Obama Administration, ranking House Energy & Commerce Committee member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) warned that passage of the bill would deprive millions of low income people of “basic communications services.” Along a similar vein, Meredith Atwell Baker, President of the wireless association CTIA, advised House leaders that the bill “ignores America’s inexorable shift away from wireline and toward wireless services and the reality that many of those the Lifeline program aims to help … simply cannot be served with wireline connections.” As he reminded lawmakers that the FCC “recently implemented new program reforms to remove waste fraud and abuse from the program,” Competitive Carriers Association President Steve Berry noted that “Congress is working on productive reform efforts as well.”
In remarks on the House floor, Pallone emphasized that Democrats “stand ready to work with Republicans to make the program better.” Though disappointed by the House vote, Scott voiced appreciation for “the new-found commitment” by Democratic and other opponents to reduce fraud and abuse in the Lifeline program.