About five minutes after the scheduled start of today's House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the Energy Department's embattled loan guarantee program, subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) walked to the dais to declare, "We don't have a witness."
Stearns' Oversight and Investigations panel had planned to spend the morning focusing on the role the Office of Management and Budget plays in approving loans for the troubled program, but Jeff Zients, the office's deputy director for management, said in a letter to the committee yesterday that "unusually short notice" of the hearing and a prior commitment would keep him from appearing.
Stearns, who maintained that Zients was informed of the hearing a week ago, described the move as part of a concerted effort by OMB to "delay and frustrate" his committee's investigation. The chairman added that a subpoena may soon be in order if OMB does not provide documents that the committee has repeatedly requested regarding a $535 million loan guarantee provided to Solyndra Inc. in 2009.
As far as Stearns is concerned, the documents are more important than having a live body testify at his hearing.
Stearns said in an interview after his abbreviated hearing that when he first heard that Zients would not be able to testify, he responded with a question: "Why don't you send someone with the documents?"
Once touted by President Obama as "a testimonial to American ingenuity and dynamism," Solyndra is viewed by House Republicans as a symbol of what has gone wrong with DOE's loan guarantee program.
The loan guarantee for the company was meant to help finance construction of a new plant in Fremont, Calif., that would produce solar energy modules. The project was praised by Obama during a tour in May 2010 as way to spur job creation from clean energy products.
But a month after Obama's visit, Solyndra ran into financing troubles and canceled a planned public stock offering because the market response was not favorable (Greenwire, July 6, 2010). The company struggled to compete against Chinese manufacturers and instead of doubling employment ended up trimming its workforce late last year.
Earlier this year, Solyndra announced a new $75 million loan to help restructure its outstanding debts. According to a release from Solyndra, DOE agreed to certain loan modifications in that effort.
Republicans have expressed concern that DOE's loan guarantee for Solyndra was made with political motives in mind and that the fiscal outlook of the company did not warrant such a loan.
Three months into their investigation of the Solyndra deal, Stearns said he still does not have a clear picture of OMB's review effort regarding that loan guarantee.
Aside from eight emails that were exchanged between OMB and Solyndra in late August 2009, Stearns said yesterday that OMB has failed to produce any of its own reports, memorandums or analysis to demonstrate how it weighed the risks presented by the Solyndra deal.
"According to OMB staff, they made their own determination that it was not necessary for this committee to see any more emails," Stearns said. "OMB's position demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitutional roles of Congress and the executive branch. It is not OMB's job to direct this investigation and decide what Congress can and cannot see."
In his letter to the committee, which was distributed by Democratic staffers at today's hearing, Zients took exception to Stearns' portrayal that OMB was stonewalling the committee's investigation.
Zients said that OMB has done "extensive work" to accommodate the committee by providing two briefings, responses to any specific questions and access to "a range of documents that squarely answer these questions."
Email discussions at issue
The disagreement over document sharing seems to come down to internal emails concerning OMB and DOE deliberations regarding the Solyndra deal.
"As you know, OMB has had substantial concerns about disclosing the deliberations upon which it regularly relies in working with DOE," OMB Deputy General Counsel William Richardson wrote in a letter to Stearns yesterday.
"It is well recognized that such disclosures run the substantial risk of deterring Executive Branch personnel from engaging in the kinds of exchanges of views that are critical to the effective discharge of their responsibilities."
Richardson noted that OMB has tried to find a compromise by describing the details of that review process and hold briefings to answer any specific questions the committee has.
But those briefings have done little to satisfy Stearns.
A new report by committee Republicans on the back-and-forth with OMB noted that the eight emails so far provided by OMB "did not include any internal emails among OMB staff members regarding the Solyndra loan guarantee."
For its part, Solyndra has taken exception to how Republicans on the committee have depicted the company.
Spokesman David Miller released a statement yesterday discussing the changes in the company and the solar market that have put the company on a strong footing.
"Solyndra successfully raised the needed cash through private investors in subsequent months and the new factory has dramatically improved the economics of Solyndra panels," Miller said.
Today's hearing "is old news and political distraction from our core business," he said.
Meanwhile, subcommittee ranking member Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.) expressed annoyance this morning for what she saw as grandstanding on the part of Stearns.
"I think it's hard to see how an 'empty chair' hearing will accomplish anything," DeGette said.
DeGette did say that a review of the loan guarantee program was an appropriate oversight role for the committee to undertake, but she also criticized Republicans for making "completely unsupported" allegations of political favoritism when it comes to the Solyndra loan guarantee.
As for today's hearing, "we're spending time on a hearing that will obtain absolutely no new facts for the record," she said. "Frankly, I think sitting here is a big waste of time."