2 Dead People Got Free Phones, and 1 GOP Lawmaker Eyes an Opening

Ben Terris
National Journal

Sitting in a drawer somewhere in Rep. Tim Griffin’s office are two cell phones sent to dead people that were subsidized by the federal government. Now, the Arkansas Republican has drafted a bill to make sure that will never happen again. 

Coming off a session constantly referred to as the least productive in decades, most legislation is more about making a point than making a law.

Constituents sent these phones to Griffin, claiming they came in the mail for their deceased parents through Lifeline, a Federal Communications Commission program meant to make sure low-income consumers aren’t cut off from the rest of the world. Lifeline has been much maligned over the years as being filled with exactly this type of waste and abuse (the term “Obamaphone” may come to mind). Until recently, there were few — if any — real checks on whether recipients were deserving of subsidies from the program.

Last year, however, the FCC tightened the eligibility rules, and according to a new study by the Wall Street Journal, 41 percent of Lifeline's 6 million subscribers could not demonstrate their eligibility and will be dropped from the program. Not only would this presumably prevent any dead people from getting free phones, it will also save about $400 million in 2013 from the $2.2 billion spent in 2012. Politicians on both sides of the aisle welcome the new oversight on the program, but Griffin wants to go even further. He wants to completely end federal subsidies for cell phones.

“I don’t have any data on what people use them for, but anecdotally, I don’t think the predominant use is for emergencies,” he said. “Also, I do not believe, from what I’ve seen — and again, we don’t have data — that the vast majority of people getting these phones cannot afford a minimal monthly fee for a phone.”

For Griffin, whether or not his anecdotal evidence matches up with reality doesn’t really matter all that much. It also doesn’t really matter that there are plenty of other compelling reasons beyond emergencies for why people might need a cell phone. Really, this bill is just a good place for him to make a central point about the role of government. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that’s mostly what Congress has been about these past couple of years.

“Is it really the role of the federal government to be proving people with free cell phones in the first place?” Griffin said. “Where does it end? Free iPads for everyone? Free home computers? Free Internet? Free cars?”

But if members of Congress are going to bother drafting a bill, whether to promote a message or not, it’s worth taking a peek at what the outcome would be. Griffin says his bill, which was just resubmitted to Congress, wouldn’t end the Lifeline program all together. It would just bring it back closer to what it was when it first started in 1984. He reasons that if citizens really need a phone for emergencies, a landline should suffice. It’s an idea that is at odds with the reality of the times.

According to the FCC, about 75 percent of all participants in the program (about 13 million people out of more than 17 million) chose wireless service over a landline.  It really shouldn't come as a surprise, as use of wireless services have been steadily rising for years. According to a 2012 study from the National Center for Health Statistics, more than a third of all U.S. households only had wireless telephones, a number that has been steadily rising for years.

Or, as Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democrat from California put it in a statement: “Proposals to remove the cellular phone option would move us backward rather than forward.”

The Lifeline program itself doesn’t actually even offer free phones. What it does is pay a $9.25 subsidy toward the cost of service, whether it’s for landline or — since 2005 — wireless service. If a phone company wants to offer free phones to subscribers, that is their call to make. Money for the program also does not technically come from taxpayer monies. It comes from the Universal Service Fund that charges a fee to telecommunications service providers, who may or may not pass the cost on to subscribers.

The program is only available to people living at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line or who take part in one of a number of federal assistance programs for the poor, like food stamps and Medicaid. Opponents of Griffin's bill say that by taking away federal assistance for a necessity like phone could create a small but noticeable burden on a vast section of the nation’s poorest.

But regardless of all this, Griffin still sees the program as a boondoggle for people to get free phones and for phone companies to get more customers. To him, the issue is about more than the $2.2 billion that the government spent on the program last year; it’s about the government giving handouts to people who don’t deserve them.

Like dead people.