Political Divide At Congressional Hearing On Solyndra

Sep 14, 2011
Originally published on September 14, 2011 10:20 pm

A congressional hearing on Wednesday over a company called Solyndra became a politically charged referendum on the administration's effort to promote green energy.

Until recently, Solyndra made solar panels. It received more than half a billion dollars in government loan guarantees back in 2009. Now, the company is in bankruptcy and is being investigated by the FBI.

At the hearing, Republicans raised questions over whether the administration rushed the loan process for political or private reasons, while officials from the Department of Energy defended the decision to invest in the technology.

Questions For The Administration

President Obama spoke at the company's Fremont, Calif., headquarters 15 months ago, saying that "companies like Solyndra are leading the way to a brighter and more prosperous future."

The president held it up as a shining example of a company that created jobs while saving the environment and freeing the country of its dependence on foreign oil.

Two weeks ago, Solyndra laid off more than 1,000 workers when it failed.

At the congressional hearing on Wednesday, Republicans said the administration had cozy ties to the company and its investors, and that it was overeager to promote its environmental policies at the expense of taxpayers.

"Only after the Obama administration took control and the stimulus passed was the Solyndra deal pushed through," said Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations panel.

Republicans accused the administration of pressuring the Department of Energy to approve the loan. They called its motives venal, noting that even as the company was failing, the department renegotiated the loans in a way that advantaged private investors in Solyndra — including a big Obama fundraiser.

And there was more: Michigan Republican Fred Upton called it an example of government trying to pick winners and losers.

"Was Solyndra just one bad bet by an administration rushing to claim credit for the first loan guarantee? Or was it the tip of the iceberg?" he asked.

Department Of Energy Responds

Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Energy Department's loan program, said the U.S. is rapidly losing out to China in solar technology, and that addressing this decline was the administration's motivation.

"This isn't picking winners and losers. It's helping ensure that we have winners here at all," he said. "We invented this technology, and we should produce it here. The question is whether we are willing to take on this challenge, or whether we will simply cede leadership in this vital sector to other nations, and watch as tens of thousands of jobs are created overseas. The administration believes this is a battle we must fight and win."

Silver said one big reason for Solyndra's failure was that China offered its companies far more subsidies, undercutting the whole market.

Democratic lawmakers said they felt misled by Solyndra's executives about the company's rapidly disintegrating financial condition. But they fought the accusation that the White House acted in the interest of George Kaiser, an Obama fundraiser.

California Democrat Henry Waxman questioned Silver, asking if he or his staff had any interaction with Kaiser relating to the Solyndra loan guarantee.

Silver responded: "I was not here at that time, but no, I've ... never met or spoken to the man, and as I understand from my staff, neither have they."

Waxman also noted that attacking green energy programs conveniently plays into the interests of big oil — a large Republican campaign donor.

Republicans came back at the witnesses, saying they missed signs the company was in trouble.

"I have heard not a single person stand up and take any accountability for a single dollar of taxpayer money that's gone," said Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo. "We ask who made decisions, we ask who was responsible, and the two of you stand here and point to other people and take no accountability to the taxpayers in America and in Kansas for having lost half a billion of their dollars."

Solyndra executives are expected to testify before the committee again, as early as next week.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with an unusual congressional hearing here in Washington today. The subject, a company called Solyndra. Until recently, it made solar panels. Back in 2009, as part of President Obama's effort to promote green energy, it received more than half a billion dollars in government loan guarantees.

NORRIS: Today, it's in bankruptcy and being investigated by the FBI. In a moment, we'll take a broad look at the struggling U.S. solar industry, but first, NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on today's hearing and the politics of green energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YUKI NOGUCHI: Fifteen months ago, President Obama spoke at the company's Fremont, California headquarters.

P: It's here that companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future.

NOGUCHI: The president held it up as a shining example of a company that created jobs while saving the environment and freeing the country of its dependence on foreign oil. Two weeks ago, Solyndra failed. It laid off more than 1,000 workers. At today's hearing, Republicans said the administration had cozy ties to the company and its investors and that it was overeager to promote its environmental policies at the expense of taxpayers. House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican.

CLIFF STEARNS: Only after the Obama administration took control and the stimulus passed was the Solyndra deal pushed through.

NOGUCHI: Republicans accused the administration of pressuring the Department of Energy to approve the loan. They called its motives venal, noting that even as the company was failing, the DOE renegotiated the loans in a way that advantaged private investors in Solyndra, including a big Obama fundraiser. There was more. Michigan Republican Fred Upton said it was an example of the government trying to pick winners and losers.

NORRIS: Was Solyndra just one bad bet by an administration rushing to claim credit for the first loan guarantee or is it the tip of the iceberg?

NOGUCHI: Jonathan Silver, executive director of the DOE's loan program, said the U.S. is rapidly losing out to China in solar technology and that addressing this decline was the administration's motivation.

JONATHAN SILVER: This isn't picking winners and losers. It's helping ensure that we have winners here at all. We invented this technology and we should produce it here. The question is whether we are willing to take on this challenge or whether we will simply cede leadership in this vital sector to other nations and watch as tens of thousands of jobs are created overseas. The administration believes this is a battle we must fight and win.

NOGUCHI: Silver said one big reason for Solyndra's failure was that China offered its companies far more subsidies, undercutting the whole market. Democratic lawmakers said they felt mislead by Solyndra's executives about the company's rapidly disintegrating financial condition, but they fought the accusation that the White House acted in the interest of George Kaiser, an Obama fundraiser. California Democrat Henry Waxman questioned the Department of Energy's Silver.

NORRIS: Did you or your staff have any interaction with Mr. Kaiser relating to the Solyndra loan guarantee?

SILVER: Well, sir, as I said before, I was not here at that time, but no, I've had - never had - never met or spoken to the man. And as I understand from my staff, neither have they.

NOGUCHI: Waxman also noted that attacking green energy programs conveniently plays into the interests of big oil, a large Republican campaign donor. Republicans came back at the witnesses, saying they missed signs the company was in trouble. Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo.

NORRIS: And I have heard not a single person stand up and take any accountability for a single dollar of taxpayer money that's gone. We asked who made decisions. We asked who was responsible and the two of you stand here and point to other people and take no accountability to the taxpayers in America and in Kansas for having lost half a billion of their dollars.

NOGUCHI: Solyndra executives are expected to testify before the same committee as early as next week. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.