Critics Call Broadband Program 'Rushed,' Decry Open Access Requirements in Stimulus Bill as Vote Nears

Broadband Stimulus February 12th, 2009

, Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, February 12, 2009 – House Republicans and conservative watchdog groups met at the National Press Club Thursday morning to air their grievances about the economic stimulus bill that they predicted would be wasteful and ineffective at jump-starting an economic recovery.

Meanwhile the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., confirmed that the chamber would schedule a vote on the stimulus package on Friday. Press officials in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said that the Senate had not yet scheduled a vote, and that a Saturday session remained a possibility.

Lawmakers should be taking the time to speak with the many Americans who are concerned about this bill, said House Deputy Minority Whip Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. Blackburn said Americans want congressional action to reinvigorate the economy, but are “appalled” at the amount of waste in the bill. The magnitude of it has them “grasping the minivan steering wheel,” she said.

Blackburn lashed out at the multitudes of new programs in the bill that she called “unnecessary.” Private investment, not government spending is the best fix the problem, she said, adding that jobs, not government handouts, are the “best economic stimulus we know.”

The stimulus vote will be a “sad day for America,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. In the rush to pass the bill, Congress is acting in an “irresponsible and selfish way,” he said.

People all over America are “very upset” over the “largest spending bill in the history of the world,” said Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla. Sullivan announced he would introduce an alternate proposal which he called the “Federal Realignment Act,” to create a bipartisan commission to review and eliminate duplicate or wasteful programs.

The package creates 30 new federal programs while eliminating nothing, Sullivan said, adding that “if you add something, you have to take something away.” While Sullivan admitted he had not read the latest version of the bill, he expressed doubt that the majority of Americans outside of Washington would support the final version of the package. “Not one real person in America thinks this is the right thing to do,” he said.

The broadband stimulus program should be a separate measure entirely, said Citizens Against Government Waste President Thomas Schatz.

Holding up an article in Thursday’s Washington Post, Schatz singled out as an extreme example of waste the House language allocating $1.8 billion to the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service program.

That money had been cut from the version of the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday, however, and replaced with a broadband fund of up to $6.65 billion. Additionally, the Senate-passed version calls for up to $350 million for broadband mapping, and $100 million in loans and grants for broadband in rural areas.

Referring to the $1.8 billion in RUS funding that had been in the House version of the stimulus, Schatz said it was equal to what the agency had received for broadband over the last six years.

Of the 68 projects RUS has funded during that time, only 21 had even been started, he said. The broadband program is a prime example of the ineffective and wasteful spending that is endemic to the stimulus bill, he said.

Acknowledging that the  Senate-passed bill put the broadband program under the auspices of the NTIA – a nod to the criticism that many had of the RUS — he was adamant that broadband funds aren’t appropriate for a stimulus measure.

Any project that takes seven years to complete is “not an immediate stimulus,” and doesn’t even meet the Obama administration’s own stated test for inclusion, he said.

Schatz said tax credits would be a better solution for expanding broadband deployment. But the grant program is “an awful lot of money to throw out, and it’s not clear whether or not it’s going to be effective.”

Schatz also decried the proposed open access provisions of the broadband program. He said that the open access requirements are nothing but a form of network neutrality, which his group opposes.

Schatz was adamant that “any discussion of broadband should be kept out of the stimulus bill” because the money “would not be spent quickly.” The purpose of the bill is to get people back to work as quickly as possible, he said.

There needs to be a real debate over whether tax credits and incentives would be more effective to expand broadband services, he said. With government grants, net neutrality policies remain “a concern” for Schatz.

He cited last year’s FCC’s ruling against Comcast’s network management practices and the desire of many lawmakers for net neutrality legislation as evidence that the open access requirements should also be taken up in a separate measure.

But regardless of the definition of open access, Schatz remained convinced that broadband has no place in a short term stimulus package. “You can’t build a broadband network in a year,” he said.

A procedural rule requiring a 48-hour period for members to read the conference report means House leadership must wait until at least Friday for its vote.

The Senate schedule was still in flux. While an earlier vote had been a possibility, Reid’s office confirmed that no vote was currently scheduled. Some Democrats are unhappy with cuts to educational programs in the conference report, and could press for further negotiations.

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