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Lawmakers split on cap for internet, phone subsidies at hearing

Lawmakers split on cap for internet, phone subsidies at hearing
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Lawmakers tangled Wednesday over a bill that would impose a hard budget cap on the Lifeline subsidy program, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently expanded to cover broadband internet service.

The bill is backed by Republicans who have long charged that the Lifeline program doesn’t have enough protections from wasteful spending. It was one of seven measures considered at a lengthy House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing.

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“Until there are better, more effective guardrails in place there’s nothing to prevent the FCC from spending and spending and spending, placing an even greater burden on American household budgets that have to assume those costs,” Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said.

The bill would impose a $1.5 billion hard cap on the Lifeline program, which provides subsidies for phone service and broadband internet service to the poor. When it was expanded last month, the commission placed a $2.25 billion dollar yearly budget on the program, which could be exceeded.

This angered Republican commissioners and their allies in Congress.

"The FCC can basically blow right through its ‘budget’ by as much as it desires. I don’t think this is the way government should be handling the American people’s dollars, with cavalier disregard for basic fiscal discipline,” Walden said.

Democrat say the bill would limit needy families’ access to the program.

“This bill to curb the Lifeline program would take essential life-saving devices away from people who need help the most,” said full committee ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who said he had “serious concerns” about the bill.

Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) raised the prospect that a hard cap on the program might incentivize eligible users who don’t desperately need the service to apply for it anyway, out of concern they might lose the opportunity if the program hits the cap.

Others were even more pointed. Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDemocrats shift tone on unemployment benefits The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters Democratic patience runs out on bipartisan talks MORE (D-Ky.) brought up students who need to go outside of their homes so they can access the Internet they need to do their homework.

“How many blocks would you say it would be OK to have a second or third grader walk so they could get their homework done?” he asked a witness who favored the cap.