WASHINGTON, April 4, 2011 - The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing and passed draft legislation Friday that would require unused and returned broadband stimulus funds be returned to the U.S. Treasury, but subcommittee Democrats called the bill "duplicative" of policies already in place.
The legislation focuses on money granted through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to fund broadband projects. If passed, the measure would require NTIA and RUS to revoke funds when there was cause to do so and return them to the Treasury within 30 days. Currently the agencies have the option to revoke funds, but are not required to do so by statute.
According to Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), Chair of the subcommittee, the measure is "housekeeping," but would provide certainty to the statute by making de-obligation of funds for cause mandatory rather than optional.
“As stewards of the taxpayers’ money, I know we all want to prevent misspent funds and fraud," said Rep. Walden through a statement Friday. "This legislation clarifies the administrators’ responsibility to de-obligate funds when there is cause to terminate the award."
Currently, of the 553 projects to which NTIA and RUS granted through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, two have been terminated - both due to the grantees' changed circumstances.
Democrats on the panel did not dispute that the intent of the legislation was sound. Several did, however, slam the bill as redundant and a waste of the subcommittee's time.
"We passed a bill which is already law and current Agency practice," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), ranking member of the subcommittee after the hearing. "There are real issues the Subcommittee should be addressing to improve the economy, spur competition, and enhance public safety."
The testimonies of Larry Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Communications and Information and head the NTIA, and Jonathan Adelstein, Administrator of the RUS, both seemed to agree with the notion that while the legislation would provide some certainty, it would do so in ways that are already policy in the affected organizations.
In response to a question from Rep. Walden as to whether the bill would put certainty into the statute, Strickling agreed that it would, but that it would not change the NTIA's policies.
"The legislation doesn't fundamentally change [NTIA's current practices]," Strickling responded to a question from Rep. Eshoo.
The bill's requirement that de-obligated funds be returned to the Treasury within 30 days would, however, create a conflict with some Department of Justice criminal fraud and misappropriation investigations. According to Adelstein, the DOJ's may request in certain instances of suspected fraud that agencies do not revoke funds in order to complete a criminal investigation.
Rep. Walden assured the subcommittee that such issues would be ironed out before passing the bill.