Congress and the Free Government Cell Phone Plan
The free phone program made possible by the Lifeline Assistance plan, has been a relief for thousands of American families, looking to make ends meet. Many working families have been able to keep in touch with each other or job prospects with their phone. For all the good that the program has done, the free phone program has not been perfect. There has been widespread, well-reported fraud as many have taken advantage of the lack of oversight in the program, and signed up for phones when they were not eligible. Others have continued to keep their phones long after they stopped being eligible for service. Rightfully, the government has taken steps to address the fraud.
Congressman Tim Griffin (R-AR) has sponsored legislation to eliminate the free government cell phone plan. At the time, we reported that the bills that he sponsored to stop the program had little chance of passing. The latest of those bills, HR176, was introduced in January of this year and remains in committee.
A Senate Vote
Meanwhile in the Senate, US Senator David Vitter, (R-LA) recently went to the floor to criticize the program. He, along with Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Ok), spoke about how the program had been plagued with waste, in its expansion to provide free phones to needy Americans. Together they introduced a bill to eliminate the government’s mobile phone subsidy.
A similar amendment was voted on in the Senate March 23rd. It was defeated by a vote of 53-46. Most of the vote was down party lines with the only democrat to vote to eliminate being Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), previously an advocate of reforming the program.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
It is unlikely that this vote will pass the current Senate, given the previous vote in March. Therefore, for the immediate future, the program appears to be safe. However, the vote does give us some insight of the future of the program.
Similar to other matters in our government, whether this program continues to exist is probably dependent on the makeup of the Congress. If the previous pattern holds true, we would expect that a democratic majority in either the House or the Senate would prevent the program from being culled. Even though the program was started and expanded during republican administrations, it seems that current republicans are looking to shut it down. Therefore, should the GOP ever regain control of both houses of Congress, it would be expected that this program would be in jeopardy.
If the program were to be eliminated, it is unclear what that would mean to those who currently have phones, although it is a given that there would be no phones given to new subscribers. Whether current subscribers would lose their benefits immediately, or be given a grace period to have their service picked up by other carrier would remain to be seen.
In the meantime, look for continued reform in the way the program is administered. There will likely be more reforms to the program as all sides want to eliminate waste.