By Karen Tumulty
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — When someone in the Washington area begins to type the president's last name into the search box of Google's home page, the top three terms it suggests as the most popular selections are Obama, Obamacare and . . . Obama phone.
Obama phone? A hotline, maybe, to the Oval Office?
Hardly. "Obama phone" is the widely used — and misleading — nickname of a 28-year-old federal program known as Lifeline. It provides discounts, averaging $9.25 a month, on phone service for 13.3 million low-income subscribers.
In the 3 1/2 years after false rumors started that the Obama administration was giving free cellphones to poor people — and six months after a racially charged video about it went viral — a once-obscure phone service subsidy is getting renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill.
There are growing calls in Congress to end or drastically cut back Lifeline; later this month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing that could help determine its fate.
"The program has nearly tripled in size from $800 million in 2009 to $2.2 billion per year in 2012," the senior Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee wrote in a March 26 letter to the Democratic minority. "American taxpayers — and we as their elected representatives — need to know how much of this growth is because of waste, fraud and abuse."
Lifeline was begun not under President Barack Obama but during the administration of Ronald Reagan. It expanded to include cellphone service during the presidency of another Republican, George W. Bush.
In Obama's first term, amid evidence of widespread fraud, the Federal Communications Commission moved to crack down on the program, saving what it predicts will be $400 million this year, on top of $214 million in 2012.
Never mind all that. "Obama phone" has stuck.