(CNSNews.com) - The White House press corps laughed when President Obama's spokesman on Wednesday said the president, in directing the Federal Communications Commission to raise cell phone taxes to pay for broadband Internet access in schools, would not be going around Congress.
"The FCC will decide whether another tax is applied? You're not making an end run around Congress in this case?" a reporter asked fill-in White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
"Well, I -- 'end-run' is not the word I would use. What I would say is that there has been -- (laughter) -- what we have seen from Congress is, we've seen a lot of stagnation and dysfunction and an inability to act on some rather obvious priorities of the American people.
"And so we have made pretty clear -- and I think the president has demonstrated a willingness -- to act on his own where he can, and where necessary to make progress on those priorities. And that's exactly what we're doing in this case."
Earnest noted that the FCC is an independent body, and "they'll have to make their determination about whether or not they want to update the E-Rate program." The acting FCC chair, Democrat Mignon Clyburn, issued a statement earlier this year saying she supports the president's plan.
"You would think that connecting schools to the information superhighway would be a pretty noncontroversial topic, particularly when it's something that could be accomplished through a relatively modest investment," Earnest told reporters on Wednesday. "Unfortunately, we haven't seen a lot of action in Congress, so the president has advocated and administrated the unilateral action to get this done. We're not going to wait for Congress to act."
President Obama announced his ConnectEd plan on June 6 in Mooresville, N.C., calling on the FCC to modernize and leverage its existing E-Rate program: "Specifically, today, I am directing the Federal Communications Commission, which is the FCC, to begin a process that will connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed broadband Internet within five years," he said. "And for those of you who follow politics in Washington, here's the best news -- none of this requires an act of Congress."
President Obama did not put a price tag on the plan, but White House officials said it would cost billions of dollars.
Congress established the FCC in the Communications Act of 1934, and it operates as an independent U.S. government agency overseen by Congress. The agency is directed by five commissioners who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The president also selects one of the commissioners to serve as chairman.
Obama in May nominated cable and telecommunications industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler to succeed Julius Genochowski as FCC chairman. A Senate panel approved the nomination several weeks ago, but there's no word on when the full Senate will vote. In the meantime, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the daughter of U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), is serving as acting chair.
Earnest told White House reporters that the E-Rate program already exisits for the purpose of expanding access to telecommunications and technology across the country, and therefore raising the tax wouldn't "necessarily" require congressional approval.
But some Republicans beg to differ: “Most consumers would balk at higher costs, higher phone bills, and I sure hope that this is not part of the equation that ultimately comes out,” the Washington Post quoted Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as saying. Upton, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said "there’s going to be pushback, absolutely,” if the Obama administration raises cell phone fees.
The E Rate program was launced in 1997 when the Federal Communications Commission, acting under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, set up a program to give schools and libraries discounted telecommunications services. According to the Education Department, up to $2.25 billion annually is currently available to provide eligible schools and libraries with discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent for eligible telecommunications services, depending on economic need and location (urban or rural).
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said if the cell phone tax goes up, it would have a "pretty minimal" impact on consumers -- "probably on the order of $5 or less a year" on an individual cell phone owner.
"Now, for the prospect of connecting 99 percent of American schools to the Internet, the president thinks that's a pretty worthy trade-off and a worthy investment; we'll see if the FCC reaches the same conclusion," he said.
According to the Washington Post: "White House senior advisers have described the little-known proposal, announced earlier this summer under the name ConnectEd, as one of the biggest potential achievements of Obama’s second term."