A senior Republican appropriator confessed today that if the Obama administration applied inappropriate political pressure on the Department of Energy to approve the ill-fated Solyndra loan, then he and other members of Congress are guilty of the same sin.
Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho spoke at an Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Loan Programs Office's 2013 budget request during questioning of the office's acting director, David Frantz.
Simpson admitted he routinely checked with Frantz's predecessor about a $2 billion loan guarantee for a front-end nuclear project that a company called AREVA planned for Idaho Falls. The project received a conditional commitment in May 2010.
Since DOE has to answer to Congress for its funding, Simpson said he could understand how some people might view his repeated meetings with DOE officials on the AREVA project as applying pressure.
"Did I put undue influence on the administration?" he asked. "Maybe."
Frantz assured Simpson the loan office had been scrupulous in its efforts to keep political pressure from affecting its decisions. The focus, he said, was on a project's merits.
There should be ways, Simpson said, to assure the public that's the case.
The lawmaker's comments today could be a serious blow to a case that his Republican colleagues have tried to build against the Obama administration in the political battle over Solyndra.
At least two other House committees are conducting high-profile investigations into Solyndra and the larger loan program, and one of the main criticisms that Republicans have put forward are ties between the bankrupt California solar energy manufacturer and high-profile Obama campaign donors. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who is leading the House Energy and Commerce Committee probe of the Solyndra loan, has spent more than a year decrying the entire project as an example of "crony capitalism."
After his remarks, Simpson was asked in a brief interview whether some of his colleagues have been too caught up in finding a political smoking gun on Solyndra.
"Maybe," he said, before acknowledging that he was reluctant to bring up the issue at the hearing.
But Simpson said he believed the point needed to be made that members of Congress can apply the same kind of pressures for which they have been blasting the administration.
"I called [DOE officials] over and talked to them several times about what was happening with the AREVA plant," he said. "The questions is, do they feel pressure when I'm doing that, because we fund them? ... I talk to the Department of Energy all the time on a lot of things. And I'm sure there are members" from other states who do the same thing.
Simpson said there are plenty of other legitimate questions that could be asked about Solyndra.
"You could ask yourself if it was well-vetted," he said. "If they did the due diligence or if anybody could have seen that the Chinese were going to subsidize their solar industry so much that these guys couldn't compete. ... A lot of the problem, I think, was in the management of Solyndra."