WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama liked the idea laid out in a memo from his staff: an ambitious plan to expand high-speed Internet access in schools that would allow students to use digital notebooks and teachers to customize lessons like never before. Better yet, the president would not need Congress to approve it.
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.
There’s just one little catch — it costs billions of dollars, and Obama wants to pay for it by raising fees on mobile phone users. Doing that relies on approval by the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency that has the power to reject or approve the plan.
Republicans vow to oppose any idea that raises costs on consumers, while others question whether it’s appropriate to use the FCC to fund an initiative that is better left to Congress’ authority. “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,” said Republican Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “If they pursue that course, there’s going to be pushback, absolutely.”
Republicans said that if the proposal moves forward, they will hold congressional hearings and pressure the FCC to side against the proposal, though it’s unclear how much they could really do.
There are five seats on the commission — two are filled by Democrats, one by a Republican, and Obama has nominated candidates for two open seats. The commission has taken the initial steps in what could be a yearlong process before it decides.
ConnectEd, which seeks to provide high-speed Internet to 99 percent of schools within five years, is a case study in how Obama is trying to accomplish a second-term legacy despite Republican opposition in Congress.
The idea first arrived at the White House doors after the 2012 election, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Julius Genachowski, Obama’s law school friend and then FCC chairman, broached the idea.
The proposal makes use of the FCC’s ability to charge consumers fees to fund specific priorities, such as subsidizing phone service for the poor. Known as the universal service fund, the plan has had bipartisan support in Congress, but it also has drawn criticism from some telecom companies for raising fees and from some conservatives who oppose what they call handouts.
In the case of ConnectEd, White House officials worried that Obama could be accused of raising taxes on all Americans who use phone or Internet service, amid a broader debate with Republicans saying he is trying to raise taxes on the middle class.
The cost for the initiative is estimated to be $4 billion to $6 billion, and the administration said it could work out to about $12 for every cellphone user, paid in fees over three years.
A senior White House official said that if the idea had come up during the presidential campaign, it probably would have been abandoned because of the political risk.
Democrats faced withering critiques in the 1990s for advocating gas taxes to fund roads and bridges, while former Vice President Al Gore was put on the defensive over the “Gore tax,” the original 1996 law that gave the FCC the power to charge such fees.
White House officials were also concerned about the perception that they would try to unduly influence the FCC.
“Using the FCC as a way to get around Congress to spend money that Congress doesn’t have the political will to spend — I think that’s very scary,” said Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican former FCC commissioner. “Constitutionally, it’s Congress that decides how federal funds should be spent.”