Jan 28 2010

Shelby Criticizes NTIA’s Broadband Stimulus Program

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee on Appropriations, today expressed his concerns about the U.S. Department of Commerce’s poorly managed National Telecommunications and Information Administration broadband stimulus program.

Excerpts of Shelby’s statement are immediately below in bold, followed by the full text of his prepared remarks:

“The NTIA alone has more funding than three of the federal law enforcement agencies under this subcommittee’s jurisdiction combined – the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency. Apparently, this Administration cares more about our nation’s ability to update their Facebook status than fighting crime…

“This program is not stimulating the economy – it is simply more government spending that is forcing our nation much further into debt…

“We should save the taxpayer from suffering from any further incompetence at the Department of Commerce and rescind this money today…

“The stimulus broadband funding has taken what was once a small agency and turned it into a bureaucratic nightmare.”

The full text of Shelby’s statement, as prepared, is as follows:

Statement of Senator Richard Shelby
National Telecommunication and Information Administration Broadband Hearing
January 28, 2010

“I would like to thank the Chairwoman for calling this hearing.  Secretary Locke, Assistant Secretary Strickling, thank you for taking the time to join us today.

“The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), is supposed to be the smallest agency within the Department of Commerce with approximately 270 employees and an annual budget of $20 million.  It has now increased its number of employees to over 310 and has one of the largest pots of money in not only the Department of Commerce, but in all of the federal government.
 
“Interestingly, NTIA alone has more funding than three of the federal law enforcement agencies under this subcommittee’s jurisdiction combined – the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency. 

“Apparently, this Administration cares more about our nation’s ability to update their Facebook status than fighting crime.

“Last year, the Administration hastily requested and received $7.2 billion of taxpayer dollars for rural broadband funding in the economic stimulus bill.  $4.7 billion was appropriated to NTIA and $2.5 billion to the Department of Agriculture.

“Today, Mr. Secretary, $4.3 billion idly sits in the coffers of NTIA, and $2.2 billion remains unspent by the Department of Agriculture. 

“This Administration that so desperately needed $7.2 billion in the President’s stimulus bill for rural broadband funding is now negligently and wastefully sitting on a grand total of $6.5 billion of taxpayer dollars.

“$6.5 billion.  This is almost half of the total savings that the President claimed would be saved in his upcoming Fiscal Year 2011 budget request.
 
“NTIA, with billions of dollars in its coffers, has been besieged with grant proposals.  The smallest agency in the Department of Commerce is now tasked with funding $4.7 billion in grants.  And yet, the Administration shortsightedly overestimated NTIA’s capacity to deliver this funding and tasked an agency that does not even have a grant administrating office with disbursing $4.7 billion. 

“After scrambling to find a way to oversee this program, the Department has tasked grant officers in NOAA and NIST to disburse the funding.  Further, panels of outside contractors have been hired to review applications.  Many of these contractors have never been interviewed in person by anyone at the Department of Commerce and yet are responsible for ensuring that all applicants are qualified.

“Mr. Secretary, what is being done to ensure that a competitive process is in place?  That this process is fair?  And that none of these contractors have a conflict of interest in awarding these funds?

“This program is not stimulating the economy – it is simply more government spending that is forcing our nation much further into debt.

“The stimulus broadband funding has taken what was once a small agency and turned it into a bureaucratic nightmare. 

“What was supposed to be a program to provide broadband access across the nation has become the poster child for why the stimulus was, and continues to be, a disaster for the American taxpayer and the federal budget. 

“There are now hundreds of private consultants taking over what should have been newly created jobs, and NTIA still has distributed only a pittance of the funds given to this program while a September 2010 deadline looms. 

“We should save the taxpayer from suffering from any further incompetence at the Department of Commerce and rescind this money today. 

“I opposed the stimulus bill that created this program, and these results, or lack thereof, only confirm my previous concerns about that entire bill.  This program has not been the promised ‘down payment’ on economic prosperity, and it can hardly be described as even getting off the ground. 

“I am confident that since this hearing has publically exposed this negligence, the Administration and the Department of Commerce will blindly and frantically attempt to hastily distribute the remaining funds.  We are talking about billions of dollars that will be rushed out of the door, to for all practical purposes, unknown recipients, with no accountability, whether it will truly provide any broadband coverage or not.  

“Mr. Secretary, I would have preferred this hearing to be about the success NTIA is having with implementing this program, but there is no way around the fact that it has fallen well short of the results we were promised from the start. 

“If only NTIA’s broadband program was the only failure at the Department.  Unfortunately there are many more that are costing the taxpayers billions of dollars as well. 

“One in particular is the National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites Program (NPOESS).  NPOESS is another government program that has been deemed as too big to fail.  Well, Mr. Secretary, this program is failing. 

“The June 2009 GAO report indicates that while things with the program may be better, the program is still a disaster.  Going from worse to bad is not an improvement the American taxpayer should have to endure.  While I understand your Department has a big announcement today about the future of this program anything less than complete termination is unacceptable.  

“NPOESS has and will continue to drain billions out of other critical science, weather, and research programs at NOAA.  This Administration, to date, is no better manager of this program than the last one.  And now we are to the point where there is a real danger that there will be no satellite continuity of coverage for weather forecasts.

“Mr. Secretary, this program is poorly managed, is billions of dollars over budget, is behind schedule, and its functionality decreases by the hour.  It is a failure and should be put out of its misery.

“I know that this is a hearing about NTIA’s broadband stimulus program, so I will leave further comments about the Departments programmatic, budgetary, and managerial woes for when we meet again to discuss the FY 2011 budget.

“However, Mr. Secretary, the symptoms of what could be a greater systemic problem within the Department are hard to ignore. 

“Thank you, Madame Chairwoman, Mr. Secretary, and Assistant Secretary Strickling.”