The so-called “Obama phone” program, which subsidizes cellphone service to low-income Americans, is about to come under new scrutiny from Congress.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold hearings this month on the program officially known as Lifeline, as both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about the cost and fraudulent practices associated with the measure.
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“The program has nearly tripled in size from $800 million in 2009 to $2.2 billion per year in 2012,” senior committee Republicans wrote last month in a letter to Democratic committee members, according to The Washington Post
. “American taxpayers — and we as their elected representatives — need to know how much of this growth is because of waste, fraud and abuse.”
Lifeline, a 28-year-old program started during the Reagan administration, provides discounts on phone services for more than 13 million low-income users. The program was expanded to include cellphone service during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Senate Republicans pushed an amendment to the budget resolution in March that called for ending the program, but the measure failed on a near-party line vote.
Earlier last month, House Energy Committee Democrats requested a hearing, and blamed the Bush administration for much of the fraud that exists in the program, The Hill reported
Democratic California Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee’s ranking member, along with other committee Democrats, said “universal access to communication services is a longstanding national policy goal,” but that expanding the service from landlines to cellphones during the Bush presidency “created new risks for waste, fraud, and abuse.”
The Obama administration admits that fraud is a concern, with the Federal Communications Commission saying it will save $400 million this year by cracking down on offenders. The program has an income threshold and a limit of one phone per household.
The program was highlighted during last year’s presidential race when a video that went viral showed a woman praising the program as a reason to vote for President Barack Obama.
“Keep Obama in president, you know. He gave us a phone,” the women yelled in the video, which was viewed more than 8 million times.
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The issue played into Republicans concerns that federal handouts have spiraled out of control and entitlements make people dependent on government.
“The president offers you free stuff, but his policies keep you poor,” GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said in response to Obama’s State of the Union address. “For those who are struggling, we want you to have something infinitely more valuable than a free phone.”
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