Hearing Planned for GOP Bill to Cap Lifeline at $1.5 Billion

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By Lydia Beyoud

April 1 — The House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee is planning to examine a bill from Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) to cap the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program at $1.5 billion annually, likely at an April hearing, committee aides told Bloomberg BNA.

Lawmakers are planning the move in response to a bitterly partisan March 31 meeting at which the commission approved a $2.25 billion “soft” budget as part of an order revamping the Lifeline subsidy program for low-income Americans. Rumors and barbs flew at the agency after the commission's two Republicans accused Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn of reneging on a deal she had previously sought to broker with them the day before .

Congress is likely to probe the agency to determine what took place behind the scenes, multiple FCC and telecommunication industry sources told Bloomberg BNA April 1.

Among the questions at issue is a spate of communications between Clyburn's office and other stakeholders on the Lifeline rules on the morning of March 31. The final rules, approved 3-2 on a party-line vote, put a budget cap on the program for the first time.

Many Democratic lawmakers opposed any sort of firm budgetary limits on the program, as indicated by an ex parte filed late March 31 by Clyburn's office.

Communications With Lawmakers

The filing lists communications between the offices of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the top House Democrat; Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee; Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.); and Democratic staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee, among others, with Clyburn's office.

Pelosi's and Eshoo's offices inquired about the status of the proceeding, though, according to the ex parte filing, said they did not advocate a position on the proceeding as rumors swirled of a bipartisan deal between Clyburn's office and those of GOP Commissioners Michael O'Rielly and Ajit Pai.

Separately, Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-Mo.) office also communicated with Clyburn's staff in support of the deal. McCaskill has previously called for the Lifeline program to be capped, including in a March 1 letter to the FCC.

Speculation continued April 1 as to Clyburn's interest in brokering a last-minute deal with Republicans in order to achieve a 5–0 vote on the Lifeline order, which is among her signature policy efforts at the agency. Clyburn's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Several telecom industry sources and observers told BBNA on background that Clyburn may have been trying to ensure the future of the Lifeline program at a higher budget level than the one proposed in Scott's bill. However, the sources expressed skepticism that such a bill could get past President Barack Obama's veto pen.

Spending Controls

The level of controversy and concern voiced publicly by the commissioners and evidenced in the Lifeline docket indicates the difficulty the FCC had in finding a tool to control spending in the program.

As it is, the Lifeline program is underused by households that would qualify for its subsidies. “I don't think that anyone has a really firm grasp of how much participation could swell when they switch to broadband,” Doug Brake, a telecom policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told Bloomberg BNA.

For Republicans, the obvious budget mechanism is a cap, Brake said. “ For Democrats, they just want more flexible controls that maybe don’t dig in quite as deep and wouldn’t see — at least as a political matter — see people be turned away” once a cap is reached, Brake said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com