A justified 'honor' for a money-throwing federal agency

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler won an award last week that he probably won’t take pride in. Citizens against Government Waste named Wheeler the December Porker of the Month.

Wheeler (at right) received this “honor” after increasing the size of the Universal Service Fund’s E-Rate program by $1.5 billion — resulting in a 17.2 percent increase in the “universal service” fees charged to Americans on their telephone and wireless bills each month.

The E-Rate program, which provides schools and libraries with discounts on telecommunications and Internet access, is one of four programs funded through the Universal Service Fund, or USF. The FCC began eyeing the program after President Obama launched his ConnectED program to provide 99 percent of students in America high speed broadband and high speed wireless services within five years.

At the beginning of the year, I became concerned that rather than actually reform the program to address this laudable goals, the FCC would just throw money. In February, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and I wrote an essay in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel urging the FCC to reform its programs first. We wrote:

“Based on how much we spend, every child in America should be getting a world-class education, which would include connecting our classrooms to digital opportunities. To get there, the federal government doesn't need to spend more money — the Federal Communications Commission already runs a program called E-Rate that distributes over $2 billion to schools and libraries to purchase communications services each year. What we do need is real reform in Washington and an end to the waste, fraud and abuse inherent in the current program.”

One thing we pointed out in the newspaper is that while the E-Rate program is supposed to be about connecting kids to next-generation technologies, it still prioritizes basic telephone service — to the tune of half a billion dollars per year. “Indeed, a school can get funding for paging service (remember pagers?) and international long distance more easily than it can get money to wire up a classroom. That makes no sense.”

Our basic premise was this: Instead of throwing more money at the problem, we should turn the current E-Rate program into a fiscally responsible one that puts kids and common sense first.

Unfortunately, the FCC did not take this approach. I am very concerned that unelected bureaucrats have the power to raise de facto taxes on Americans. What’s worse, behind closed doors this increase was promised by the FCC for months but only instituted after the elections. The FCC is truly deserving of CAGW’s award.