Phone, Internet Subsidies Headed for Partisan Battle

Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

Democrats have no plans to seek compromise on a controversial House measure that would implement a hard budget cap on a federal phone and internet subsidy program as it heads into its subcommittee vote Tuesday.

The Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee is slated to mark up the CURB Lifeline Act along with six other relatively uncontroversial communications bills. The Lifeline bill will likely be approved on party lines.

A Democratic aide at the committee said there’s currently no negotiation taking place on the Lifeline bill. This is the case even though there was some earlier willingness at the Federal Communications Commission to consider a $2 billion annual budget.

The aide added that there is little room for negotiation since most of the Democrats on the subcommittee oppose any type of cap on Lifeline, which provides phone and internet subsidies to low-income households.

The bill would put a $1.5 billion annual budget on the Lifeline program. The FCC voted along party lines in late March to update Lifeline by adding subsidies for internet access to the program historically aimed at helping low-income Americans get phone service.

Republicans both at the FCC and in Congress were deeply angered by the lack of a hard cap on the program’s budget. The commission’s final rule included a $2.5 billion budget goal, but Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly deemed it a “phantom number.”

Like Democrats, Republicans are eager to connect low-income Americans to phone and internet service, but they have also pressed for increased fiscal responsibility in the Lifeline program. Democrats on and off the Communications and Technology Subcommittee have made it clear that they won’t entertain the idea of any budget because it could weaken the program and leave millions of eligible participants offline.

Democrats Reps. Doris Matsui and Jerry McNerney of California and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania all contacted Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s office hours before the agency voted on the Lifeline order to warn her against imposing any sort of budget cap, according to a filing from Clyburn’s office. The Democratic staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee also raised concerns.

Before the FCC vote, Clyburn struck a deal with FCC Republicans that would have instituted a $2 billion annual cap. After massive pressure from House Democrats, the deal fell apart, though Clyburn said she changed her mind on her own.

Philip Murphy, legislative director for Doyle, wrote to Clyburn’s office saying a hard budget would be a “huge concession” with the potential to “significantly constrain the program,” according to a later filing.

“The very idea of capping a social safety net program is against everything Democrats have fought for,” Murphy said.

Republicans all over Washington grew angry after finding out that the bipartisan deal had been abandoned. It’s probably not a coincidence that shortly thereafter, the Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans began mulling legislation to impose a budget cap on the Lifeline program.

Tuesday’s vote is just the first step in what could be a long partisan path. The House must wait until mid-May to begin debating appropriations bills, so it’s not hard to imagine a full committee vote next, followed by a floor vote. (There has been no announcement to that effect from House GOP leaders.)

If the bill made it through the House, the Senate would move slower. But there appears to be willingness among Republicans to consider putting some pressure back on the independent agency. “We don’t like where the FCC is headed,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune told reporters two weeks ago.

The South Dakota Republican opined that the best thing would be to “come up with a legislative solution that brings at least some amount of fiscal responsibility and fiscal accountability to what the FCC did.”

Morning Consult