A group of Republican legislators has introduced a bill that would cut government subsidies that help low-income Americans buy mobile cell and broadband service.
The legislation, which was filed by Rep. Austin Scott and eighteen other GOP lawmakers on Friday, sets its sights on the Lifeline program. It’s a part of the Universal Service Fund that allows for discounts on cell service and broadband for poorer Americans — a subsidy of about $9.25 a month, which is funded by surcharges on phone bills. Scott contends that Lifeline’s “free cell phone plans” should end in an effort to cut government fraud and waste and help taxpayers. According to a statement, he wants to revert the program back to its “original purpose” of only subsidizing landline service.
Notably, the program is funded by phone bill surcharges — not taxes. And if Scott’s bill passes, it won’t reduce or return those surcharges to consumers. Instead, the excess funds would go toward deficit relief, (a.k.a, reducing the national debt). Although Lifeline is often called the “Obama-era free cell phone program,” it was actually created under President Reagan in 1985 and expanded to include cell service by President Bush in 2005.
It’s worth noting that Scott has attempted to pass a version of the same bill, but it failed to pass the House. Before a June vote on the previous legislation in 2016, the National Consumer Law Center said that it would “undercut an essential anti-poverty program that connects families to emergency services, children to educational opportunities and parents to jobs.” Fraud has historically driven concerns surrounding the program and Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has taken steps to limit Lifeline’s expansion — though even he stopped short of cutting it.
Of course, with major service providers considering pulling the plug on landlines entirely, it’s not hard to see how Lifeline could become essentially irrelevant if Scott’s bill passes.