Ever since Solyndra, a California manufacturer of solar panels, went bankrupt Sept. 5 with $535 million of federal loan guarantees, Chu and his Energy Department have been the focus of some unwanted attention. The department has been hammered by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has unearthed reams of Obama administration e-mails about internal rifts over the Solyndra loan guarantee. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), head of the panel’s oversight subcommittee, has gotten Chu to agree to testify Nov. 17. And GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called for Chu to be fired for “grossly mismanaging federal dollars.”
“Daily Show” host Jon Stewart devoted eight minutes to the Solyndra affair and addressed lawmakers’ charges that the loan was based on politics, not merit.
“Maybe their hearts were in the right place and they bet on the wrong horse,” said Stewart of the Energy Department officials. “It’s not like there’s any damning evidence they knew in advance this horse was, in fact, a donkey.”
For Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, it has been a demonstration that the laws of politicsare more important in Washington than the laws of physics.
For most of Chu’s time here, those laws have been aligned. President Obama is fond of the idea of having a Nobel Prize-winning physicist in his Cabinet, say people who have been in touch with senior administration officials.
The president liked Chu’s wonkiness, intellectual authority and devotion to planting technological seeds for slowing climate change. Though the Energy Department’s grant and loan guarantee programs were less than one-tenth of the 2009 stimulus total, Obama showcased many of the projects because, unlike road repairs, they held out the promise of gee-whiz innovation and of heightened competitiveness on a global stage.
Chu personified that gee-whiz character, and as a physicist he was able to understand the bulk of the Energy Department’s more mundane but important responsibility to manage the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. On the day Obama visited Solyndra in 2010, he mentioned that Chu — “who, as you know is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist” — was then in the Gulf of Mexico personally poring over plans, pressure equations and photos in an effort to plug BP’s leaking Macondo oil exploration well.
But now Solyndra has become a financial and political blowout, and it has made Chu look naive, at best, for saying in March that with Solyndra’s sales rising and its equity investors kicking in more money, he was “confident they can repay” the federal loan.
Weeks earlier, in a Jan. 31 e-mail, an Office of Management and Budget staffer was alarmed. The staffer wrote that an upcoming senior staff meeting “might present an opportunity to flag to DOE at the highest levels the stakes involved, for the [Energy] Secretary to do as he sees fit (and be fully informed and accountable for the decision).” The staffer, whose name was redacted, said, “Although [political] optics are generally out of our lane, it may be worthwhile for the [OMB] Director to privately make this point to the Secretary.” What happened at that senior staff meeting remains unclear.