The House this week appropriated $200 million to help poor people hurt by skyrocketing fuel costs pay this winter's utility bills. But, according to a Republican congressman, if everyone eligible applied for the assistance they would get only about $5.
Rep. Robert Michel (R-Ill.) said the 233-170 House vote Wednesday extended the help to everyone with incomes below 125 per cent of poverty who can show a notice of cutoff of fuel or has paid fuel bills or has fuel bills outstanding.
Michel said those standards could apply to 38 million people, including couples on Social Security and anyone whose income is below $6,875 a year for a family of four, $4,625 for a family of two and $3,500 for an individual.
The outlay would be administered by the Community Services Agency, which would send the money to the governors, presumably to let community action agencies distribute it locally. The money would be paid directly to fuel or utility suppliers for last winter's bills. There is a $250 per family limit and a deadline of June 1 to spend the $200 million.
"What we are going to have is millions of people descending upon the community action agency offices expecting to be paid, and most of them will go away disappointed and angry because there will no nowhere near enough funds to go around and probably many in the worst straits will end up with nothing," Michel said.
Michel called it "an honest effort to correct an inequity", but said there had been no House hearings on the subject. "This is what happens when we try to legislate without thinking things out."
A more modest proposal by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis), to help only people whose fuel was going to be cut off or who still had unpaid bills, had been attached by a House Appropriations subcommittee to a fiscal 1977 supplemental appropriation.
However, Obey's proposal was rejected, 26 to 24, by the full committee. Obey, who said an estimated two million people wouldn't be able to pay their fuel bills, was trying to get it restored on the floor when Rep. John Anderson (R-III) questioned whether it didn't discriminate against poor people who had already paid their bills.
Anderson said he had "heard stories about elderly people who have sacrificed to pay their utility bills to the point they were literally eating dog food because they wanted to pay their gas and utility bills". His amendment to include those who already had paid, was accepted, and was in the final bill.
Appropriations Committee Chairman George Mahon (D-Tex), said the $200 million is "just a drop in the bucket. Ultimately the fuel amendment would require a multibillion-dollar program to provide fuel assistance to the people of the nation and it will grow bigger and bigger and bigger".
A Senate Appropriations subcommittee has adopted a similar proposal, but the supplemental bill has not yet been taken up by the full committee.
The Carter administration opposed the fuel proposal but probably would not veto the appropriations bill because of it.