Congress returns from its Summer break today, ready for a fight.
In less than four weeks, the September 30 deadline for passing the Federal government’s budget for Fiscal Year 2024 will arrive. If a final budget, in the form of twelve separate appropriations bills or maybe a single “omnibus” bill, hasn’t passed both the Senate and the House — which almost certainly won’t happen — then the two chambers must agree on a temporary spending bill (a “continuing resolution”) at 2023 levels, or much of the government will have to suspend operations on October 1.
In the debt ceiling agreement back in May, the White House and the two Congressional parties agreed to zero total increase in “discretionary” non-defense appropriations for FY 2024. Based on this agreement, the Senate Appropriation Committee finalized its versions of all twelve budget bills more than a month ago. But with many members of the GOP majority in the House seeking deeper cuts (among other things), the House Appropriations Committee has yet to release most of its budget packages.
So a complete budget deal by September 30 seems very unlikely. The main drama we can expect from Congress in September is a fight over the terms of a continuing resolution, followed by at least three more months of extremely partisan maneuvering, culminating in another deadline showdown in December.
If you follow national political news, you probably know all this. But you might not know that, as things stand today, there is no Congressional plan or proposal anywhere in this whole complicated budget picture to keep the Affordable Connectivity Program — which recently enrolled its twenty millionth household — operating through Fiscal 2024.
Everyone now accepts that the ACP will exhaust its original Infrastructure Act funding long before the coming fiscal year ends on September 30, 2024. CYC projects that the ACP’s money will run out no later than next May, if recent enrollment growth continues. With an expenditure rate of nearly $600 million per month, the unfunded cost of continuing the program just through the fiscal year will be between $2.5 billion and $3 billion.
All kinds of people, organizations and media outside the Federal government — progressive and conservative, pro-business and pro-consumer — have been loudly calling for ACP’s renewal. This bipartisan wave of support, along with recent aggressive ACP promotion efforts led by FCC Chair Rosenworcel, might lead you to believe that continued funding is already on Congress’s agenda — or at least on the agenda of the White House and Democratic Congressional leaders.
Unfortunately, you would be mistaken.
Despite the Biden Administration’s recent campaign promoting ACP enrollment, the White House has never publicly asked Congress for continued funding. ACP funding wasn’t included in the Biden budget released in March; it wasn’t part of the debt limit deal negotiated between the White House and GOP leaders in May; and it’s not included in the White House’s August 10 Supplemental Appropriation request.
The Senate Appropriations Committee’s package of twelve FY 2024 budget bills, all approved (amid some taking of bows) by the end of July, do not include a penny to extend the life of ACP.
In the House, one 2024 budget bill that has been finalized by the Appropriations Committee — “Financial Services and General Government” — is the one that funds the FCC, which administers the ACP. But the ACP isn’t mentioned in the Committee’s approved draft.
(The ACP is mentioned in the accompanying report “explaining” the bill, in which the Committee commends the FCC for its implementation of the program and “requests a report on the progress of ACP within 30 days of enactment of this Act, which should include unobligated funding levels as well as household enrollment data and state uptake”. But since “the enactment of this Act” means “when a final budget is passed”, the FCC’s report may well not be due before next February — a little late for the House to start considering how to deal with a $3 billion shortfall in May.)
Not only is ACP funding not part of any budget under consideration in either chamber or any proposal from the White House — according to Congress.gov, no Member of Congress or Senator has even introduced a bill on the subject.
There’s been speculation by ACP supporters that funding for its continuation might be arranged through the upcoming Farm Bill, or legislation authorizing spectrum auctions, or Universal Service Fund reform. But none of these ideas has actually been proposed in legislation, let alone put on a fast enough track to fill a $3 billion gap by next June.
So as Congress starts its budget showdown, more money for affordable connectivity in FY 2024 just does not seem to be on the table.
One bright spot, kind of
On August 17, forty-five House Members associated with the Problem Solvers Caucus (but not all of that caucus’ members, and not using the PSC name) released a letter they’d sent to House and Senate leaders, calling for ACP funding to be added to the FY 2024 Budget. The signers included fourteen voting Republicans as well as two non-voting GOP territorial delegates, and twenty-nine Democrats.
The letter is definitely a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy landscape — partly because of the signers’ bipartisan-ness, but also because it calls for “solving” ACP’s 2024 shortfall as a straightforward budget priority, rather than relegating it to some speculative source like FCC spectrum auction reauthorization or Universal Service reform.
Money is money, of course, and a multi-billion-dollar ACP may well need a special dedicated funding source for the long run. But the program has twenty million subscribers right now, tens of thousands more enrolling daily, and a hard stop coming in just seven or eight months. The letter shows that a significant group of House Members have decided to take those realities seriously.
But strangely, not so many of them are from our state.
What’s the matter with Ohio?
Ohio has more than a million households enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program. That’s 22% of all Ohio households — the third highest ACP enrollment percentage among all fifty states.
Yet the only Ohio Representative signing the August 17 letter was Democrat Greg Landsman of Cincinnati (OH-1). The state’s three other Problem Solvers Caucus members, Republicans Dave Joyce and Bill Johnson and Democrat Emilia Sykes, did not sign.
Sykes had more than 75,000 ACP households in her district at the beginning of August. Joyce had more than 62,000 and Johnson more than 61,000. You’d think that preserving all those constituents’ access to affordable broadband would be just the sort of problem they’d be most interested in solving.
They’re not the only House Members from Ohio whose silence about the ACP funding issue is perplexing. At the top of that list is Rep. Shontel Brown, whose district (OH-11) had 119,000 ACP households as of August 1 — more than any other Congressional District but one. One of every three households represented by Congresswoman Brown has signed up to get monthly ACP Internet subsidies. And one out of every three households in her district stands to lose that monthly bill credit, and see a $30 monthly rate hike in mid-2024, if ACP doesn’t get new funding.
(The one House Member with more ACP households than Brown was Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York City, with 125,000+. Reps. Brown and Espaillat both belong to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose hundred and one members collectively represented 5 million ACP-enrolled households at the end of June. Nationally, seven of the ten Congressional Districts with the biggest ACP enrollments are represented by Progressive Caucus members. Yet aside from three members who also belong to the Problem Solvers Caucus and signed the August 17 letter, the Progressive Caucus has shown little interest — so far — in preserving ACP Internet support for twenty million poor and near-poor households.)
After Congresswoman Brown, Ohio’s Members of Congress with the most ACP households at the end of June were Republican Michael Turner of metro Dayton (OH-10); Democrat Emilia Sykes from metro Akron-Canton (OH-13); and Republican Brad Wenstrup (OH-2), whose district includes fifteen mostly rural counties stretching east-west along the Ohio River from Meigs to Clermont, and north to Clinton, Pickaway and Hocking.
The similar percentages of ACP-enrolled households in Turner’s, Sykes’ and Wenstrup’s very different districts (27%, 23% and 23% respectively) highlight the program’s broad appeal to both urban and rural Internet users. They also suggest how widely the “internet rate shock” of sudden $30 monthly bill increases will be felt by households and communities throughout the state, of all political persuasions, if ACP support is allowed to lapse next Summer.
So why aren’t Ohio Members of Congress of both parties showing more concern about this? Maybe it’s just a reflection of the general weirdness of American politics in 2023. Or maybe the ACP phenomenon is still too new and “under the radar” to grab a busy politician’s attention. Maybe those Internet bills will have to jump, and twenty million rate-shocked consumers will have to start howling about it — in the middle of the 2024 campaign — before ACP (or its collapse) will really matter.
When and if that happens, there will be plenty of blame to go around, and plenty of fingers trying to direct that blame at others. But right now, there’s still a rare opportunity for Representatives from both parties to share credit rather than point blame.
The forty-five House Members who signed that August 17 letter might have started that ball rolling. We’ll see in the next week or two whether their initiative gets any traction in an extremely divided House.
But it seems more likely that a serious move to insert funding for ACP in the FY 2024 budget, if it happens, will start in the Democratic-led Senate, where the budget process is much further along its normal path, somewhat more bipartisan, and much less poisonous than it is in the House.
Vance and Brown?
Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, each of whom represents all of the million+ Ohio households now taking advantage of ACP to lower their Internet bills, could take the lead to make it happen.
Back in June, Senator Vance and seven GOP colleagues, led by Senator Wicker of Mississippi, sent a letter to President Biden, calling the ACP “an important tool in our efforts to close the digital divide” and urging the White House “to repurpose a portion of unobligated emergency COVID relief funds to ensure the continuity of funding for this program, while we explore alternative sustainable funding mechanisms and updated parameters.”
By the time their letter was sent, those “unobligated emergency COVID funds” had already been “repurposed” by the debt ceiling deal. But the basic message of the Wicker letter — the suggestion of a bipartisan deal to create funding “continuity” for ACP — is still out there, with Vance still on the record supporting it.
Brown and Vance are very far apart on most issues, but they’ve famously put their differences aside to form a bipartisan alliance on rail safety issues. Like rail safety, keeping ACP alive through FY 2024 is an issue on which there’s little partisan disagreement, especially in Ohio… where it’s a “Biden program” that’s strongly supported by the DeWine Administration, promoted by local officials of both parties in communities of all kinds and sizes, and used by almost a quarter of all households, spread through every county.
Brown isn’t on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees Internet and communications issues and is the logical place for an ACP funding proposal to originate. Vance is a member of Commerce as well as its Communications, Media and Broadband Subcommittee. Ordinarily you’d hope for a bipartisan group from that Subcommittee — perhaps led by its Chair, Senator Ray Lujan of New Mexico (whose percentage of households using ACP is 4th highest among the states, just behind Ohio) — to lead the charge to keep ACP alive.
But so far that hasn’t happened. The Senate’s 2024 budget package is complete, and funding to preserve ACP benefits for twenty million U.S. households and one million Ohio households isn’t in it.
So something else — something out of the ordinary — seems to be called for. And that something must happen soon.
Ohioans have a right to expect both of our Senators, and all of our Members of Congress, to take whatever steps are necessary to put the preservation of the Affordable Connectivity Program on Congress’ FY 2024 budget agenda, starting right now.
You know what to do. The clock is ticking.
Here’s Common Cause’s handy tool for looking up your Representative and Senators’ phone numbers.
Here’s USA.gov’s tool for the same purpose (which also provides email addresses).
(This post was updated on 9/10/23 with Congressional District ACP household enrollment totals and percentages reflecting new ZIP code data for August 1, 2023, which was released by USAC on 9/8/23.)