‘We can do this without Congress’: Obama working to unilaterally impose tax on cell phones

Katie McHugh Associate Editor
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President Barack Obama is looking to unilaterally impose a $5-per-year tax on all cellphone users to avoid asking a recalcitrant Congress for funding.

The Washington Post first reported the story Tuesday.

The Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency headed by three Obama appointees, would collect the tax, tacking on an additional charge to devices already subject to local, state and federal fees, along with sales taxes.

Obama hopes to rake in enough funds for a project called ConnectED that will cost taxpayers billions: expanding high-speed Internet access in classrooms across the country so that 99 percent of public school students can freely access the Internet.

Obama administration officials promise that the tax would end in three years after the FCC filled its coffers with $6 billion, but gave no details on how the government would prevent potential cost overruns or measure the program’s progress.

Deputy White House press secretary John Earnest denied that the move was an “end run” around Congress in a press briefing Wednesday, but added that Congress’s “dysfunctional” state could justify an executive override.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of action in Congress, so the president has advocated an administrative, unilateral action to get this done,” Ernest said. (RELATED: Obama skirts Congress, funds pre-K through Obamacare)

Obama himself has openly discussed his willingness to bypass Congress whenever he is particularly insistent on implementing a part of his domestic agenda. In a July interview with The New York Times, the president said he feels he may need to both create and execute the law.

“I will seize any opportunity I can find to work with Congress to strengthen the middle class, improve their prospects, improve their security,” Obama said. “But where Congress is unwilling to act, I will take whatever administrative steps that I can in order to do right by the American people.”

Congress, the president continued, can publicly express its disagreement, but made no mention of “legislative steps” the legislative body could take.

“And if Congress thinks that what I’ve done is inappropriate or wrong in some fashion, they’re free to make that case. But there’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency. And I don’t think that’s a secret,” Obama said. “But ultimately, I’m not concerned about their opinions — very few of them, by the way, are lawyers, much less constitutional lawyers.”

White House officials doubted they could have garnered support for Obama’s proposal during election time, recalling painful ridicule of “the Gore tax” — a 1998 law that allowed the FCC to impose and collect taxes to fund “universal service programs,” which the agency fought to keep secret so as not to stir popular opposition. Then-Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore bragged about the Clinton administration’s program during campaign stops without mentioning its cost, drawing widespread criticism.

Senior Obama administration officials considered avoiding the issue entirely, the Post reported. But Obama is deeply captivated with the idea, the aide told the Post.

“We are here to do big things — and we can do this without Congress,” Obama told his staff at a meeting, according to the aide.

One expert, however, challenged the lawfulness of Obama’s eager plans.

“Using the FCC as a way to get around Congress to spend money that Congress doesn’t have the political will to spend — I think that’s very scary,” Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican former FCC commissioner, told the Post. “Constitutionally, it’s Congress that decides how federal funds should be spent.”

One of the three FCC commissioners expressed skepticism about the president’s plans as well.

“We shouldn’t force schools to skew their spending decisions in order to help us meet an arbitrary national target,” Ajit Pai said in a recent speech to the FCC, warning of potential bureaucratic inefficiencies that could hamstring the program.

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