Shelby: Broadband stimulus a 'poster child' for wasteful spending

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is sharply criticizing the Department of Commerce's management of the broadband stimulus program, which he says is a "poster child" for wasteful spending under the Obama administration.

"This program is not stimulating the economy — it is simply more government spending that is forcing our nation much further into debt," he said during an oversight hearing this morning.

"The stimulus broadband funding has taken what was once a small agency and turned it into a bureaucratic nightmare," added Shelby, ranking member of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee on Appropriations.

The broadband program, which allocated $4.7 billion to the department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration for rural broadband projects, has been too slow to grant the money to states, Shelby said.

He added that the NTIA now has more funding than the three law enforcement agencies under the subcommittee's jurisdiction combined: the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"Apparently this administration cares more about our nation's ability to update their Facebook status than fighting crime," he said.

Shelby's attack comes amid growing worries about the federal deficit. The Senate is to vote Thursday on increasing the nation's debt level to a record $14.3 trillion.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the subcommittee, disagreed that that money is not being spent wisely.

"You can't have law enforcement without high-tech tools," she responded. The NTIA had to build an entire grant-reviewing infrastructure from scratch to fund what she says "are not shovel-ready projects."

"Rural broadband is one of the most crucial programs," she said. "I think what we need to do is right-size our expectations."

During the sparsely attended hourlong hearing, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling defended the NTIA's management of the program.

During the first round of the program, NTIA received 1,400 applications requesting $19 billion in funding from a pot of only $1.5 billion, Locke said. The agency has hired only 43 new employees and relies on 1,000 application reviewers who "are practically volunteers."

But Mikulski did want to know why the money was taking so long to be disbursed to states. Of the $4.7 billion given to NTIA, $4.3 billion still sits in the agency's coffers.

"Our question is, when the hell is this going to create jobs?"

Locke said the final grants from the first round of funding should be awarded by the end of February. Applications for the second round of funding are due March 15.

"Our role is not unlike that of a private equity firm or venture capital firm trying to do due diligence ... to make sure we don't fund a bad project," Strickling said. "If these projects aren't running five years from now after the funding is long gone, we haven't done our job."