GOP attacks on low-income phone program a mistake

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Extremist Tea Party measures are being offered in Congress to attack this same Lifeline program. Whether seen as “sore loser” tactics or draped in fiscal cleanup, these measures will only alienate the Republican Party from any semblance of a mainstream base. Lifeline has served low-income, minority, and elderly Americans since 1984, and striking out at “Obamaphones” isn’t going to make things any better.
 
Through the Lifeline program, more than 12 million Americans who live near or below the poverty line access monthly telephone service. It’s a vital program for older women and men who live alone, for job-seeking Americans with unstable housing, for homeless families and for those who find themselves temporarily in need of assistance – through personal tragedy or a large-scale one like Hurricane Sandy.
 
So why do these overzealous Republicans want to get rid of the program? Because many of them believe it was partially responsible for President Obama’s re-election victory. One unfortunate woman in Ohio last year, a black woman protesting at a Mitt Romney event outside Cleveland, became a YouTube sensation after referring to wireless Lifeline service as “Obamaphone.” Apparently goaded by the rogue videographer, she screamed into the camera that minorities were able to obtain free phones if they qualified for other government assistance programs such as food stamps, certain disability programs or being low income. Far-right Republicans bit lockjaw on this, making the “Obamaphone” the poster child for Mitt Romney’s “47 percent.” Rush Limbaugh painted Lifeline as an Obama signature program and ad nauseam declared, “people are voting for Obama because he gave them cellphones.”
 
Soon after taking office this year, Karl Rove’s protégé, Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), introduced a bill to end wireless Lifeline. Even Speaker John Boehner fell prey to the Tea Party urban legend when he wrote about the budget crisis in the Wall Street Journal. He blithely said that “no one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still ... giving folks free cellphones.”
 
Nothing could be further from the truth: No one gets a free cell phone from the federal government, and Lifeline is not paid for with tax dollars. Once again, Tea Party anger trumps facts — and it washes into the highest levels of the Republican Party.
 
Lifeline isn't a program started by Obama; it's a 25-year-old program that began in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. President Reagan recognized that, with the breakup of AT&T, he could be accused in reelection of separating poor people from telephone service. Congress started the Lifeline program, subsidizing $10 a month toward home telephone service for low-income Americans. Lifeline was expanded to include wireless service under President George W. Bush, when it was first used to provide low-income help during Hurricane Katrina. Several years later it was approved as an option for all low-income Americans.
 
Lifeline is paid for by user fees charged to telephone and cellular companies that often pass the cost off to consumers, rich and poor alike, through their phone bills. Lifeline providers now receive $9.25 per month when they provide service to qualifying Americans. When a subscriber chooses wireless service, the provider supplies the phone, not the government. No one gets both landline and wireless. Lifeline subscribers have to choose, and if they choose wireless, they don’t get unlimited calls like landline. They get 250 minutes a month and only one phone line per household. Period.
 
As early as April 2011, USA Today reported that that more Americans are “ditching” their home phones for cellular. Citing a National Health Interview Survey and the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey, USA Today reported that more than one in four U.S. homes, or 26.6 percent, had only a wireless phone as of June 2010. This number was nearly twice that of just three years before in 2007, a trend toward “showing no sign of slowing down.” Low income Americans were said to be most likely to depend on cell phones, because giving up a landline helped them save money.
 
So, Republicans, goaded by Tea Party extremists, want to cut off poor people from their most viable method of communication when ending Lifeline wouldn’t save the federal government a dime. Go figure.
 
It’s tragic that Rep. Griffin’s bill to end this vital, no-budget-impact program actually has a chance of seeing the light of day on the floor of the Republican-controlled House. There’s nothing like another Tea Party splat on an already messy agenda for the Republican Party. If Rep. Griffin’s bill passes the House, Speaker Boehner can kiss good-bye the reelection of his more moderate members. Members such as Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) will be either drowned in hyper-charged Tea Party primaries or smacked down at a general election for being a part of a bully caucus that openly disdains minority, low-income and struggling elderly voters.
 
Just this week, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Huffington Post Los Angeles wrote about Lifeline’s positive impacts on people’s lives, noting that “having a phone means being able to be called back quickly on job applications.”
 
Huff Po quoted, “This is the only connection they have to get a job or to talk to family members,” especially “when they have no landline or home address.” The Chronicle noted that, while those kinds of dire straits seem incomprehensible to other people with means, staying connected “can mean life or death for those in crises.”
 
Ending Lifeline, and especially wireless Lifeline wouldn’t save taxpayers a dime, but it would affect the lives of more than 12 million Americans living near or below the poverty level. If Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, and Reps. Griffin and Boehner want to bash poor people to make a political point, they’ll paint the Republican Party further into a treacherous corner. And the very people whose support they need at election time will never throw them a Lifeline.