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The New Republic: Vibe check: The future of the Affordable Connectivity Plan

The New Republic: Vibe check: The future of the Affordable Connectivity Program
By Grace Segers

I’ve previously written in this newsletter about the Affordable Connectivity Program, which helps connect millions of low-income Americans to the internet—and which will end in May if Congress does not approve additional funding. The program grew from a pandemic-era benefit, and has been used by around 23 million households. Despite bipartisan and bicameral support for the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act, which would boost funding for the program by $7 billion, the future of the bill is uncertain. Congress is preoccupied with a host of other priorities, including approving a supplemental package of aid to Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific.

Despite these complications, a group of Democratic representatives is pressuring Johnson to take up the legislation. I spoke with Representative Annie Kuster of New Hampshire, the chair of the New Democrat Coalition, about how her caucus of centrist Democrats is pushing to keep the Affordable Connectivity Act a priority. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The ACP is set to end in May. Do you believe Congress can approve legislation to extend the program before that deadline?

I certainly hope so. I mean, that’s our goal. We’ve waited too long, obviously. This was a bipartisan bill when it passed; the extension has two dozen Republican co-sponsors. And we were hoping that they would help us to get it to the floor quickly. Now we’re really running up against the deadline. And so we want to make sure that we keep the pressure on the House Republican leadership.

These enrollees are all across the country, in red and blue districts, so we’ve got to put aside partisan politics and work together. It’s a lifeline for American families, for students doing homework, or people applying for jobs. We have very low unemployment, and our companies are looking for people to do jobs, to cover their job openings. And if you don’t have the internet from home, you can’t apply for the job. You can’t look up the bus schedule to get to the job. You can’t be in touch with your employer to send or receive messages.

The way America works and lives, and the way our communities function—for schools, for hospitals—everyone has the expectation that people will be available via the internet. And 23 million Americans have had this access to affordable internet. We’ve been closing this digital divide. This is true for low-income communities, but it’s also true for rural communities like my district to provide access to affordable broadband. We did this during Covid because it became immediately apparent how important it was for telework, for telehealth, for education online. And then now it’s being stripped away—just in my own state, we’re talking about 40,000 households. So that is a significant number of people who will no longer be able to participate in the normal course with our community and with our economy.

What do you believe is the best pathway for approving the Affordable Connectivity Program extension?

Well, the best pathway would be to just attach it to a bill that’s going to be considered, and get it to the president for his signature as quickly as possible. If the Republican leadership is unwilling to do that, then we would have to consider alternative pathways.

What kind of bill would you want to see it attached to?

Whatever passes the relevancy test. It’s such a popular bipartisan program. It shouldn’t be difficult to identify it—you know, a path to get this done. This should be a priority, really, with the deadline bearing down on us?

Well, that does bring me to my next question. There is a lot happening in Congress right now.

Yes, yes. Maybe we could attach it to Ukraine aid. [Laughs]

How do you convince Speaker Johnson that this is a priority?

I think it’s so popular that we should be able to do it on suspension, and now we’ve got a few extra days here. Let’s do it on Friday under suspension. That might be the way to go.

[Author’s note: Approving a bill under suspension of the rules requires a two-thirds majority to pass.]

The bill does, as you mentioned before, have significant GOP support. But there are a few Republicans who say that the ACP is redundant or that it has not truly connected a meaningful number of Americans. How do you respond to those criticisms?

Twenty-three million Americans is a meaningful number to me, and certainly 40,000 households in New Hampshire. We’re a state that has, I think we’re at 2.3 percent unemployment.… We can’t afford to have 40,000 people isolated, not connected to our economy and our society to the extent that they can’t fill out a job application, they can’t apply for a new position, they can’t go online to get new skills. Health care is a great example. So much of health care is working your way up from an entry level [licensed nursing assistant] to getting your credentials, working your way up to nurse practitioner. The way these things happen is that people take classes online, over the weekend, at night. And you’re just, like, squashing all of that talent. I wish I had a sophisticated word. I’m just thinking of just pushing people down. You’re not giving people the opportunity to thrive, and it will impact our economy.

I have one health care provider with 750 openings, they need to be able to communicate with everybody. And if you take 40,000 people out of the pool of potential applicants, just simply because they don’t have access to know about the position, to look online for a job, to fill out the application, to pull down their transcript from their school—everything happens online. Put yourself in the position of trying to apply for a job and not being able to go on a computer. It’s ludicrous in this day and age. And so to me the ACP is the equivalent of basic infrastructure. It’s like having public roads and high winds and phones and everything that we need to function. This is the modern version. The twenty-first-century infrastructure includes access to affordable internet.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you a question related to the news of the week. So, specifically, consideration of the package of national security bills and what that could mean for Johnson if the House is able to pass this new legislation. Do you think Democrats would be prepared to vote to keep Johnson in office if there is a motion to vacate against him?

So what I have said publicly is that, first and foremost, we’re focused on the substance. So we are taking today to ensure and reassure ourselves that all the parts of the set package are included. So, aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel, humanitarian aid to Gaza; there’s a fourth piece that has to do with Taiwan. We need to absolutely confirm that all of the pieces [are there]. But if I accept your proposition that all of the pieces will be passed, I have said publicly that if he’s a man of his word, and he told me directly, personally, that that’s what would happen, then I would personally have no reason to remove him from the chair.

That seems like a very conditional statement.

Entirely. Entirely conditional. And frankly, I wouldn’t even make that decision until that decision had been made by my leadership. You will see Democratic unity on this issue. We will negotiate together. This will be in conjunction with a decision that’s made by our leadership, Leader Hakeem Jeffries and our whip, Katherine Clark. I would never get out in front of them.