In recent years — where important legislation always seems to be prepared at the eleventh hour, after closed door meetings with only selected congressional leaders — it has been easy to forget that one of Congress’ more important powers is the power to investigate, obtain documents, and take testimony. Much of the drama in the Watergate story, for example, came during the long, drawn-out congressional hearings into that scandal, as witness after witness drew the ring of scandal closer and closer around President Nixon.
The Solyndra story is no Watergate, of course, but congressional oversight and investigation powers aren’t reserved only for scandals capable of bringing down a President. Congress should determine whether federal officials disregarded clear risks and awarded more than half a billion dollars to a private company just to advance a political agenda — or, even worse, to help a political contributor who invested in a struggling business — and, if so, Congress should take steps to ensure that those officials are appropriately punished and such recklessness does not happen again in the future. Such actions would be a good sign that Congress may actually get back to doing its job and exercising its powers, rather than simply, and endlessly, fundraising and grandstanding.
I’m glad that Republicans and Democrats alike are interested in getting to the bottom of the Solyndra story, because investigating the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds is not a partisan issue, but rather is a straightforward “good government” issue. Every Member of Congress should want to know how this happened, and then use that information to assess whether the Department of Energy program, with its risky practice of providing substantial financial support directly to specific companies, should be continued — or should be ended in order to protect against misuse of tax dollars.
Solyndra had received $535 million in federal loan guarantees and was one of 40 concerns that was supported by a Department of Energy program designed to encourage green energy projects. Today, however, the company suspended its manufacturing operations and laid off more than 1,000 workers.
It is not clear how much money the federal government will lose as a result of its support of Solyndra, and some no doubt will argue that such losses, whatever they may be, are simply a necessary cost of trying to develop “green energy” alternatives in the United States. For others, however, Solyndra’s failure is a sobering lesson that even significant federal support doesn’t mean much if a company cannot hold its own in the rough and tumble world of the global economy. In this instance, Solyndra apparently couldn’t compete with foreign manufacturers who sold comparable products at cheaper prices. This story also raises more fundamental questions: why should the federal government be supporting certain companies and industries at all, and when they do who is deciding whether the investment of our tax dollars has a prayer of earning a meaningful return?
Amazingly — to me, at least — some green energy advocates say federal and state governments haven’t done enough to encourage green energy. They bemoan the fact that Congress did not enact “cap and trade” legislation that would have made use of fossil fuels more expensive and therefore made green energy alternatives more competitive. For now, however, people are paying attention to their pocketbooks when they are making energy choices, and green energy is losing out.
The article is a good illustration of how government forecasts and promises frequently end up for naught. It also demonstrates that government efforts to redirect consumer sentiments are doomed to fail — at least when they ask consumers to spend more for unfamiliar technology that doesn’t seem to work as well as what they were using before.