- - Friday, August 30, 2013

Congress is finally getting involved in reining in one of the government’s most bloated programs, the $9.3 billion Universal Service Fund, which is responsible for saddling telephone bills with an inscrutable array of taxes and fees. People have to pay more to keep in touch with friends and family because the government is raising cash to buy Obamaphones.

These are the devices made famous in an election-year YouTube video featuring a woman explaining her ballot-box choice. “Keep Obama as president,” she said, “he gave us a phone.” Officially, it’s known as the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program, something that has more than doubled in size from $822 million to $2.1 billion under President Obama. The flood of new money has covered the cost of hiring vendors to stand outside welfare offices and sign up people for “free” high-tech smartphones. Companies on the dole also set up websites enticing the public to get their “free government cellphones” online.

The shady advertisements seem like the stuff that belongs with all the other fraudulent sales pitches in an email spam folder, but the program is all too real. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, sent a letter to acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mignon Clyburn earlier this month asking her to explain what her agency is doing to eliminate fraud in this dubious enterprise. “It is important that all federal programs be effectively administered,” wrote Mr. Sessions, “and that these programs adhere to the highest standards in order to protect the funds provided by the American people.”

Mr. Sessions cited the investigative work of National Review’s Jillian Kay Melchior, who was able to get three phones in a single afternoon, even though she didn’t qualify for any of them. The devices are supposed to go to people who are below a certain income threshold, currently between $14,702 and $18,306 depending on the state, or to individuals who participate in any number of welfare programs, including school lunch, public housing and food stamps.

In June, the Federal Communications Commission finally got around to putting procedures in place to verify eligibility after determining 6 million Obamaphone holders couldn’t prove how they qualified. By any reasonable definition, what has been going on is a scam.

Liberals get defensive at the Obamaphone label and point out that the Lifeline program started decades ago as a way to wire rural areas to ensure access to landline phones to make emergency calls or find work. The idea to move away from landlines toward mobile phones developed at the tail end of President George W. Bush’s administration. A bipartisan bad idea is still a bad idea.

Rep. Tim Griffin, Arkansas Republican, filed a bill that would stop the Universal Service Fund from giving away free cell service. Eliminating the $2 billion Obamaphone program would be a nice signal that Congress is serious about getting America’s fiscal house in order, but it needs to do more. Another $7 billion can be saved by eliminating the rest of the Universal Service Fund, which has outlived its purpose and become just another welfare program.