'MarcoPhone' Program Covers Area Including 200k Sq Miles, 7+ Million People, Open-Ended Funding

In designing a federal grant program, one can opt for very general eligibility criteria, to provide certain flexibility, but strictly limit the funding to ensure the grant is narrowly applied. One could, alternatively, detail very specific eligibility criteria, with less restrictions on funding, to ensure grants get where they are intended. Applying very general criteria with loose restrictions on funding, however, is a recipe for potential fraud. This is the exact problem with the proposal dubbed "MarcoPhones."

Last week, Breitbart News' Matt Boyle reported that the 844-page immigration proposal included a grant program providing satellite phones to people living in the "southwest border region" of the country. A Florida reporter dubbed the program "MarcoPhones," given Sen. Marco Rubio's public leadership of the "Gang of 8" immigration negotiations. Several outlets pushed back on the story, arguing that the program was originally proposed by AZ Sen. Kyl and McCain in 2011, after the tragic murder of a rancher the year before. This is true, but only to a point. 

In 2011, Sens. McCain and Kyl introduced legislation to increase border security. They included a provision to create a 2-year grant program to provide satellite phones for residents in the "southwest border region." An individual would be eligible for a grant, provided, he or she:

(A) regularly resides or works in the Southwest Border region; (B) is at greater risk of border violence due to the lack of cellular service at his or her residence or business and his or her proximity to such border.

The legislation appropriated $3 million over the subsequent two years. 

(4) Authorization of appropriations.--There is authorized to be appropriated $3,000,000 to carry out the grant program established under this subsection.

 The "Gang of 8" proposal adopts these criteria, word-for-word. In fact, the entire "Gang of 8" language on the satellite-phone program is lifted completely from the McCain/Kyl proposal, but for one important element -- funding. The "Gang of 8" proposal provides for an open-ended appropriation. From the legislation released last week:

(4) AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS.— There is authorized to be appropriated such sums as may be necessary to carry out the grant program es- tablished under this subsection.

This is a very important distinction. Eligibility for the grants detailed in the McCain/Kyl legislation is very general and vague, i.e. one must live in the region and have a "lack of cellular service." The provision gives the Secretary of Homeland Security discretion in establishing the detailed criteria. With a set appropriation of just $3 million over 2 years, however, DHS would draft very narrow criteria for grant eligibility. The modest appropriations is consistent with defenders' arguments that the program is meant to be narrow and targeted.

A program with an open-ended appropriation, however, could look very different. The "Gang of 8" proposal defines the area where the grant program applies as:

(3) SOUTHWEST BORDER REGION.—The term ‘‘Southwest border region’’ means the area in the United States that is within 100 miles of the South- ern border.

The US border with Mexico is 2,000 miles long. The area 100 miles from this border is 200,000 sq. miles and takes in such metropolitan areas as San Diego, Tucson, El Paso and other major towns. The total population of this area is over 7 million people. All of these meet the first criteria for the new grant program. 

It is the second criteria that makes limiting funding important. To be eligible, one must have a "lack of cellular service." It is noteworthy that the provision doesn't detail "lack of cellular coverage," just "service." It doesn't include  any of the other definitions the federal government uses to define areas underserved by telecommunications areas. 

The US Code is littered with language defining "rural" area, "ranchers", "farmers" as well as areas without telecom services. The original proposal didn't include any of these, likely to give DHS certain flexibility, but the modest appropriation implied the intent of the provision.

Open-ended funding, however, allows DHS to take a very expansive view of eligibility for the program. Does a "lack of cellular service" simply mean one can't currently afford a cell-phone plan? Wouldn't that person potentially be eligible for a grant to purchase a satellite phone? Since there is no limitation on funding, there is little check on such an expansive interpretation. 

The most telling aspect of this, however, is that someone took out a known appropriation amount and replaced it with open funding. If the program was known to cost $3 million over 2 years, why remove that funding amount and allow for potentially dramatically more spending? Whomever included the McCain/Kyl provision in the "Gang of 8" bill lifted the provision word-for-word, except for funding. Someone made a choice to make the funding for the program open-ended.  

Providing satellite phones to ranchers and others living in rural areas underserved by telecommunications may be a worthy program. It would be easy enough to craft legislation to provide for this, detailing specifically who is eligible and the kinds of coverage limitations that apply. This provision, however, doesn't do that. It provides DHS with vague criteria to provide grants and, now, provides open-ended funding.  

It is important to remember that the federal program providing cell-phone service, popularly known as "ObamaPhones" began its life decades ago as a program to subsidize land-line phones for low-income people. It the past few years, however, it has expanded to cover cell phones and eligibility is now more directly tied to other welfare programs. It is estimated that 8 million people currently receive free federal cell-phone and cell-phone service and up to 35% of all Americans could qualify for the program. 

Unless explicitly restrained, government programs organically expand. After several years, they bear little resemblance to their original intent. 


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