Opinion

This is why the GOP will never pass a decent infrastructure bill

A recent FCC decision is a sign of things to come

The Federal Communications Commission recently decided to roll back internet subsidies for poor households. The nuts and bolts of what happened are a little complicated. But it helps illustrate why President Trump is going to have a hard time living up to his promises to revitalize America's infrastructure.

At issue is a program called Lifeline, which has provided low-income Americans a subsidy to buy mobile services for over 30 years. Back in March 2016, the FCC decided to expand Lifeline to apply to purchases of internet and mobile broadband services. The three Democratic and two Republican commissioners who made up the FCC at the time were working on a compromise decision that would've put a $1.75 billion annual budget cap on the program. But the deal fell apart, and the FCC approved the program with a higher annual cap of $2.25 billion on a 3-to-2 partisan vote.

This apparently created a lot of bad blood.

Mignon Clyburn, one of the Democrats, says she concluded the cap was just too low. But Ajit Pai, one of the Republican commissioners, apparently believed Clyburn had been strong-armed by the FCC's Democratic chair — and felt burned by the whole affair.

Fast forward to December and January. The FCC approved nine new internet providers under the new program — the first to get the green light since the March decision, and the first to be approved nationwide. But then the Obama administration departed and the FCC's Democratic chair departed with them. Trump named Pai as the new acting FCC chair, and now the FCC has a two-to-one Republican majority with two seats vacant.

On Friday, Pai scuttled the approval of those nine companies, calling it a "midnight regulation" jammed through at the last minute. The FCC also indicated that further rollbacks might be coming for the nascent internet subsidies program. Cancelling those nine companies "would promote program integrity by providing the [FCC] with additional time to consider measures that might be necessary to prevent further waste, fraud, and abuse in the Lifeline program," the FCC said in Friday's decision.

Now, none of the nine providers have been accused of any fraud. And the FCC already established a third-party verifier to make sure the providers don't sign up ineligible customers, so it's not clear where the waste or abuse is coming from either.

In fact, "waste, fraud, and abuse" is really just a Republican boilerplate justification for spending cuts. And that's the core disagreement here: spending.

When Pai was introduced as the new FCC chair, he talked a big game about how closing the divide in internet access should be one of the FCC's "core priorities." But when push comes to shove, he and other Republicans are just not going to increase government spending to fund what basically amounts to a small infrastructure project.

And that's really what internet access amounts to now. Like roads, bridges, electric grids, or railways, the internet isn't just part of the economy anymore — it allows you to participate in all of the other parts of the economy. These days, if you don't have regular and reliable access to the internet, you're less useful to many employers and you lose out on a host of job opportunities. The internet is also an important educational tool for young people, yet about five million American households with school-age children can't afford it.

But unlike most bridges and roads, the internet is not provided as a public good by the government. It's a for-profit service sold by private corporations. And so private companies set up high-speed broadband and the like for the customers that can afford it, while the ones who can't — the ones who need it most — are left in the lurch. The Lifeline expansion hoped to solve this dilemma by giving poorer households cash to pay for the service, so they would become a more attractive customer base. But now it's basically dead on arrival.

Given everything else happening in Washington, D.C., this may not seem like a big deal, but it's really the GOP's infrastructure plan writ small.

Trump may have pledged on the campaign to invest as much as $1 trillion in infrastructure, but he and other Republicans are already finding predictable ways to weasel their way of that promise. In fact, the GOP seems to be coalescing around an infrastructure bill that will use corporate tax credits instead of public spending to entice private companies into building more. That's basically going to mean beautiful new toll roads for wealthy drivers and crumbling byways for everyone else.

Given that 60 percent of Americans say Trump's infrastructure promises are the ones he most needs to keep, this could be a big problem for the GOP.

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