September 29, 2011 in Opinion

Solyndra had GOP backing

Dana Milbank
 

 WASHINGTON – Solyndra is trying to rival her big sister Katrina’s ability to make the federal government look incompetent. But whose baby is she?

 Since the solar energy company went belly-up a few weeks ago – leaving taxpayers on the hook for $535 million in loan guarantees – a business that was once the poster child for President Barack Obama’s green jobs initiative has instead become a tool for Republicans to discredit most everything the administration seeks to do.

 Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah used Solyndra to argue against worker-training benefits. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina used it to argue that the federal government should stay out of autism research. Disaster relief, cancer treatments, you name it, Solyndra has been an argument against them.

And this week, the government faced the prospect of a shutdown because House Republicans added a provision to the spending bill to draw more attention to – what else? – Solyndra.

 “Because of some of the horrible weather we have had over the past several weeks, we have all agreed to add emergency funds that we didn’t originally plan in this bill, and Republicans have identified a couple of cuts,” explained Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, including “a cut to a loan-guarantee program that gave us the Solyndra scandal.”

What McConnell neglected to mention is that Solyndra was cleared to participate in this loan-guarantee program by President George W. Bush’s administration. He also did not mention that the legislation creating the loan-guarantee program, approved by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2005, received yes votes from – wait for it – DeMint, Hatch and McConnell.

This doesn’t mean that Bush is to blame for Solyndra or that the Obama administration should be absolved. Obama, whose administration gave the company the loan guarantee, deserves the black eye that Republicans have given him over the half a billion dollars squandered on the company. But the Republican paternity of the program that birthed Solyndra suggests some skepticism is in order when many of those same Republicans use Solyndra as an example of all that is wrong with Obama’s governance.

“Loan guarantees aim to stimulate investment and commercialization of clean-energy technologies to reduce our nation’s reliance on foreign sources of energy,” Bush’s energy secretary, Sam Bodman, announced in a press release on Oct. 4, 2007. The release said the Energy Department had received 143 pre-applications for the guarantees and narrowed the list down to 16 finalists, including Solyndra.

Bush’s Energy Department apparently adjusted its regulations to make sure that Solyndra would be eligible for the guarantees. It hadn’t originally contemplated including the photovoltaic-panel manufacturing that Solyndra produced but changed the regulation before it was finalized. The only project that benefited was Solyndra’s.

The loan guarantee program for these alternative energy companies, in turn, was created as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 – sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who has been a leader in the congressional probe of Solyndra’s ties to the Obama administration.

Among those in the Republican majority who supported the bill was Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who, in a trio of speeches on the House floor in recent days, has taken a rather different approach than the one in the legislation he supported.  On Sept. 13, he invoked “the Solyndra fiasco” and said we are “prioritizing green practices kind of like a bankrupt Spain has done.” On Sept. 15, he denounced Obama’s new jobs proposals because “green programs, like Solyndra, will have priority.” On Sept. 23, he complained: “Apparently, half a billion dollars squandered for crony capitalism was not enough. There’s more provisions for that in the president’s so-called jobs bill.”

 Also supporting the legislation creating the loan-guarantee program was Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who on Sept. 22 said on the House floor that Republicans were removing $100 million from the loan-guarantee program “to ensure that we never again have another boondoggle like Solyndra.”

The complaints were much the same in the Senate, where DeMint said the Solyndra case exposed the “unintended results when our government tries to pick winners and losers.” That’s a valid criticism, but it would be more valid if DeMint hadn’t been a supporter of the loan guarantee legislation in 2005.

But that was before Obama’s presidency, and views back then were different. They were more like the March 2008 press release from Bush’s Energy Department, announcing that it was funding research projects on photovoltaic technology: “These projects are integral to President Bush’s Solar America Initiative, which aims to make solar energy cost-competitive with conventional forms of electricity by 2015.”  Among the winners listed in the press release? Solyndra.

Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.


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