Republicans: 'Obamaphone' program is 'everything that's wrong with Washington'

The government shutdown isn't slowing down Republican criticism of the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program, a phone subsidy for the poor.

In letter to FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, forty-four House Republicans called Lifeline a "failed program" that symbolizes "everything that is wrong with Washington."

The lawmakers, led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said they would repeal the program if they could.

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"Sadly, Lifeline has become a prime example of how the culture of dependency is weakening America," they wrote. 

The program is often derisively referred to as the "Obamaphone program," although it began long before Obama took office. 

Congress first enacted the Lifeline program in 1985, during the Reagan administration. In 2005, under President George W. Bush, the FCC expanded the program to cover cellphone service.

The program pays for phone service, not the phones themselves. But many companies that receive funding through the program offer free and low-cost phones to their subscribers. The program is funded through fees that the telephone companies pass on to consumers on their monthly bills.

The program has ballooned in size from $800 million in 2005 to $2.2 billion in 2012, and there have been widespread reports of abuse and fraud. 

Earlier this month, the FCC proposed more than $14.4 million in fines against five companies for allegedly defrauding the program.

The Republicans said they were surprised by the FCC crackdown but that it's too late to restore the public's trust in the program.

"The American people expect their government to do more than pay lip service to the waste, fraud and abuse," they wrote.

They claimed that the program doesn't help the poor because the fees that fund it apply to all phone subscribers equally, regardless of their income. 

They asked Clyburn to consider requiring a $2 "co-pay" as a condition of participating in the program. They also asked for suggestions to cut the cost of the program in half by the end of next year. 

"How much time and how many resources has the FCC wasted trying to save this failed welfare program?" the Republicans asked.

Cylburn, a fierce defender of Lifeline, argues that the program helps people stay in touch with their families, apply for jobs and call for help in emergencies.

In a speech last month, she said the idea of ending the cellphone portion of Lifeline is "one of the most illogical things" she's heard since her appointment.

"Even suggesting this is taking a major step backwards and ignores the critical telecommunications needs of needy Americans and is out of step with the communications evolution," she said at the time.

The FCC was unable to comment Friday due to the government shutdown.