The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Communications and Technology, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), has convened a hearing to begin congressional oversight for broadband spending allocated under the stimulus and discuss draft legislation that would return unused or reclaimed funds to the U.S. Treasury.
The opening statement for Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Walden is provided below:
Opening Statement of the Honorable Greg Walden (as prepared for delivery) Chairman, House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology
Welcome. With today's hearing we begin exercising our important oversight role regarding the approximately $7 billion in taxpayer money the ARRA allocated to the NTIA and the RUS for broadband grants and loans. We will start to examine what the money is being used for and how we can minimize waste, fraud, and abuse. We will also consider a staff discussion draft intended to improve oversight and return unused or reclaimed money to the U.S. Treasury.
I want to emphasize that this is a discussion draft. It is only a starting point. We hope it will elicit suggestions from our colleagues, the witnesses, and any other interested parties to help accomplish a goal we all share: treating taxpayer money with the utmost care and ensuring that when we do spend it, we spend it wisely.
When we originally considered the broadband provisions of the ARRA in this committee, my colleagues and I suggested some revisions. We were not convinced that this much money needed to be spent. Private sector investment has resulted in 95 percent of the country having access to broadband and two-thirds of the country subscribing, as the FCC's national broadband plan pointed out. We have gone from 8 million broadband subscribers to 200 million in approximately a decade.
We proposed, therefore, that any subsidies be targeted to the five percent of households that are unserved, and only if it is otherwise uneconomic for the private sector to deploy there. And we thought it a good idea to finish a nationwide broadband map before we started the spending.
Our suggestions were not adopted. We will be interested to see the results, and hopefully to learn from the things that work, and the things that don't. Measuring performance will be crucial. Otherwise we won't know what is worth repeating and what we should avoid. A cost benefit analysis is also important. With a $1.48 trillion deficit this year and enormous deficits predicted for the rest of the decade, we have a responsibility to cut costs. I would suggest, for example, we determine how much we end up spending for each additional broadband subscriber.
All of this is important not just to evaluate the programs at hand. We are, after all, soon to embark on a discussion of how to reform of the Universal Service Fund. And the President has also recently announced a goal of reaching 98 percent of the country with wireless broadband. I laud the goal but believe we must be cost-efficient about how we go about it and be realistic in our expectations of what taxpayers can afford. In pursuit of the goal of increasing the deployment of wireless broadband to the unserved areas of rural America, it will be important to remember the colloquial definition of "insanity": repeating the same actions and expecting different results.
While there has been disagreement over provisions in the ARRA, everyone agrees on the importance of oversight. My concerns about possible waste fraud and abuse are heightened by the fact that the only funding currently available to the NTIA for oversight expires March 4 with the Continuing Resolution. My hope is that we can discuss with the Government Accountability Office and the inspectors general what we should be keeping an eye out for, what they ordinarily do in their oversight roles, and what we can be doing to help them in that task.
The draft legislation is offered in that vein. It would ensure that the NTIA and the RUS report to Congress on any red flags the inspectors general find, as well as on what they propose to do about it. It would also help ensure that any money that is returned, reclaimed, or goes unused is put back in the U.S. Treasury. One would think that is the ordinary course, but there is some ambiguity in the law about whether and when the program administrators must "de-obligate" funding, and whether it comes back to the treasury when they do.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about the language in the draft bill and whether there are other things they suggest we add.