"Obama Phone" -- Reverse Orwellianism from the WP
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Wed Apr 10 13:48:14 UTC 2013
‘Obama phones’ subsidy program draws new scrutiny on the Hill
By Karen Tumulty, Published: April 9
When someone in the Washington area begins to type the president’s
last name into the search box of Google’s home page, the top three
terms it suggests as the most popular selections are Obama, Obamacare
and . . . Obama phone.
Obama phone? A hotline, maybe, to the Oval Office?
Hardly. “Obama phone” is the widely used — and misleading — nickname
of a 28-year-old federal program known as Lifeline. It provides
discounts, averaging $9.25 a month, on phone service for 13.3 million
In the 31 / 2 years after false rumors started that the Obama
administration was giving free cellphones to poor people — and six
months after a racially charged video about it went viral — a
once-obscure phone service subsidy is getting renewed scrutiny on
There are growing calls in Congress to end or drastically cut back
Lifeline; later this month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee
will hold a hearing that could help determine its fate.
“The program has nearly tripled in size from $800 million in 2009 to
$2.2 billion per year in 2012,” the senior Republicans on the Energy
and Commerce Committee wrote in a March 26 letter to the Democratic
minority. “American taxpayers — and we as their elected
representatives — need to know how much of this growth is because of
waste, fraud and abuse.”
Lifeline was begun not by President Obama but under Ronald Reagan. It
expanded to include cellphone service during the presidency of another
Republican, George W. Bush.
In Obama’s first term, amid evidence of widespread fraud, the Federal
Communications Commission moved to crack down on the program, saving
what it predicts will be $400 million this year, on top of $214
million in 2012.
Never mind all that. “Obama phone” has stuck.
Republicans employ it as shorthand for the excesses of a welfare
state. So prevalent is the catchphrase that some telecommunications
companies even market the discounted service as an “Obama phone” — and
often add a free phone for those who sign up.
Lifeline’s intent was inarguable enough: Phone service is “crucial to
full participation in our society and economy,” the FCC noted in the
order creating Lifeline on Jan. 8, 1985.
Expanding Lifeline to cellphone service reflected not only technology
but also the reality of how poor people live. Last year, the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention found that slightly more than half
of adults in poverty lived in households that had only wireless phone
But in the view of many conservatives, the “Obama phone” has become
Exhibit A in the case against a liberal president who they believe is
doling out goodies to make people more dependent on government. It is
a version of the infamous “47 percent” argument that GOP presidential
candidate Mitt Romney made last year, when he claimed at a
surreptiously videotaped fundraiser that nearly half the population
supports Obama because it wants government handouts.
Lifeline made its way onto the radar screens of the right with an
anonymous e-mail, which began circulating in 2009. It warned that free
“Obama phones” were being given to welfare recipients, along with 70
minutes of service a month. “The very foundations that this country
was built on are being shaken,” the e-mailer wrote.
>From there, the conspiracy theories sprouted. Conservative talk radio
last year was abuzz with speculation that “Obama phones” had become a
means for the president’s tech-savvy reelection campaign to get poor
people and minorities to vote.
Some of it was fueled by a video of an Obama supporter that went viral
about six weeks before the election and has been viewed almost 8
“Everybody in Cleveland, low minority got Obama phone,” a woman yells
on the video. “Keep Obama in president, you know? He gave us a phone.”
That narrative has lived on for some Obama critics as an allegory that
explains the president’s worldview. “The president offers you free
stuff, but his policies keep you poor,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in
the tea party response to Obama’s State of the Union address. “For
those who are struggling, we want to you to have something infinitely
more valuable than a free phone.”
And it has become woven into the current fiscal arguments. House
Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) tweeted on Feb. 19: “Nobody should be
talking about tax hikes when govt is spending taxpayer dollars on free
Lifeline, however, is not funded by taxes; it subsists on fees that
are tacked on to most phone bills. That fund subsidizes a number of
programs, which in addition to Lifeline include telecommunications
service to rural and remote areas and to schools and libraries.
Some see a racial dimension to the opposition. “The syllogism is we
all know — wink, wink — who is undeserving and who are the takers,”
said David Honig, co-founder of the Minority Media and Telecom
Council, which promotes access to technology for the disadvantaged.
“The president looks like them, and he gives things away to them.”
The more substantive problem that has plagued Lifeline has little to
do with either side’s political philosophy. When it was expanded to
cover cellphone service in 2008, regulators included few safeguards
As a result, there have been widespread reports that cellular
providers, eager to collect a subsidy for each low-income subscriber,
signed people up without verifying their eligibility. Some recipients
also snapped up multiple phones in violation of a one-per-household
Republicans are not the only ones complaining.
After Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) received a solicitation for a free
phone in the mail at her home in 2011, she joined the chorus of
critics. As the Senate deliberated on its budget in late March,
McCaskill was the only Democrat to join Republicans in voting for a
nonbinding amendment by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) that called for
ending the “mobile phone welfare program.”
The FCC implemented a set of regulations last year that required
detailed audits every two years of companies that receive more than $5
million from Lifeline and imposed new requirements on subscribers to
prove their eligibility and recertify it each year.
The agency has also reviewed 12.5 million subscriber records,
eliminating what it says were 1.1 million duplicate subscriptions. And
it is developing a national database of Lifeline subscribers to
That, however, does not satisfy lawmakers such as Rep. Tim Griffin
(R-Ark.), who has written a House bill to restrict the program to land
Beyond the potential for waste and fraud, Griffin said, the program
raises other questions.
“Should the federal government be giving people cellphones?” he said.
“What about iPads? Where do we draw the line on this stuff?”
Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.
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