Retired general launches PR war against Vitter

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U.S. Sen. David Vitter, at right, wants to shutter a federal cell phone program for the poor, while former Army Gen. Wesley Clark, at left, is touring Louisiana in an effort to protect it from changes.

With former Army Gen. Wesley Clark stumping away in his backyard today, U.S. Sen. David Vitter is defending his own stance on a federal cell phone subsidy program for low-income citizens.

Clark, the one-time Democratic candidate for president, told LaPolitics Monday morning that Vitter has repeatedly mischaracterized the Lifeline program, which the former general said is among the reasons why he decided to launch a single-day tour of Louisiana. “I think (Vitter) has politicized and used for political partisan advantage a program that is nonpartisan,” Clark said. “It’s not paid for by the federal government. It’s a way to help people help themselves that was initiated by President (Ronald) Reagan in the mid-1980s.”

Vitter has labeled Lifeline’s mobile phone service as a “welfare” subsidy and has even co-sponsored legislation to end it, while returning the program to its original roots for landlines. He argues it has expanded well beyond its original intent—growing from $143 million in 2008, when it was first broadened to include cell phones, to $2.2 billion in 2012. He has further called it “offensive” that taxpayers have to underwrite free cell phones for program participants. “It is unfortunate when these programs become so expansive that it no longer addresses its primary mission to help those with the most dire needs,” Vitter said.

Clark countered that the program is overseen the Federal Communications Commission, which collects about 40 cents from every phone bill to pay wireless providers for supporting the service. The money is only for the service, he added, although some companies do offer participants free or reduced-cost cell phones. “There are no taxes involved,” said the former general.

Clark, who has family from the Shreveport area, said he’s also defending the program because 36,000 veterans in Louisiana rely on its services. “I’m curious to know why Sen. Vitter wants to gouge our poorest citizens and veterans and prevent them from moving up the economic ladder. This service is needed so people can get jobs, get medical attention and report crime in their neighborhoods,” he said. “I have not spoken with Sen. Vitter about this. But I’m in Louisiana today and I hope that Sen. Vitter will get in touch with me.”

Supporters of Vitter’s legislation, which failed as an amendment by a 46-53 vote in May, contend massive fraud and abuse within the program should not be ignored. Its services are supposed to support one line per low-income household, they say, yet the FCC found at least 269,000 subscribers having more than one subsidized account. Moreover, Vitter points out that the FCC found that the top five companies using Lifeline—he said they make $9 for every phone line—could not verify eligibility for 41 percent of their subsidized users.

Clark ran for president in 2004 before dropping out of the race and endorsing John Kerry, who went on to capture the Democratic nomination. Clark said he’s in private business now and has no plans to return to politics.

Asked who sponsored Clark’s trip to Louisiana, his spokesperson said it was a public affairs company that represents veterans advocacy groups.

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