Clark wants to debate Vitter on Lifeline cell phone program

– Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark announced Friday that he is willing to accept the offer by U.S. Sen. David Vitter to publicly debate the Lifeline cell phone program for welfare recipients.

Vitter, R-La., has led the Senate effort to legislatively gut the program, and Clark, who ran for president as a Democrat in 2004, spent time in Louisiana a month ago touting the program as a positive public service for those in need, many of whom are military veterans.

“Thank you very much for coming to Louisiana and calling increased attention to Lifeline, the fraud-ridden free government cell phone program for welfare recipients,” Vitter wrote to Clark at the time. “I look forward to a public discussion with you about Lifeline and my efforts to end the waste, fraud, and abuse surrounding it.”

Clark responded that he is willing to have that debate with a “pre-condition.”

“You have asked that we debate the merits of this vital program and I am more than happy to do so in both Louisiana and in Washington, D.C. if you would like to bring the subject to a broader audience,” Clark wrote to Vitter. “First as a pre-condition I would ask that you join me in one other activity: a sit down conversation with Louisiana veterans who are Lifeline users to discuss their usage of the program and how it impacts their lives.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program was created nearly 30 years ago under President Ronald Reagan to provide discounted phone service to people living in poverty. It was expanded under former President George W. Bush to include cell phones.

The program has increased in recent years and is funded through monthly phone fees.

Last year, the FCC tweaked its rules for eligibility and began investigating fraud in the program.

The FCC is proposing $14.4 million in fines on some of the companies that administer the program for not properly ensuring the eligibility of the phone recipients in some cases.

Clark said he wants to work to improve the program, rather than gut it and hurt people in the process.

“When I visited Louisiana, I met with people in need who told me the importance of Lifeline to them,” Clark wrote. “They explained that access to communications, including having their own telephone number, is vital to seeking and maintaining employment, as well as for health, medical, and community and personal safety issues. I found that more than 300,000 Louisianians, including some 30,000 veterans are using this program for their telephone services.”