Why Solyndra Won't Go Away

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the ongoing congressional investigation of Solyndra, the failed solar company that received a $535 million federal stimulus loan. To Republicans, the Solyndra episode is an egregious example of White House perfidy and cronyism, such that they’ve built a whole catechism around it that candidates routinely pay obeisance to on the campaign trail. But despite all the hysteria, Solyndra’s failure was fairly routine — costly and unfortunate, sure, a political nightmare, yes, but hardly scandalous. Solyndra was a promising company that suddenly went bust when the price of silicon plummeted and wiped out its competitive advantage in the marketplace (more about that here).

But it’s embarrassing to President Obama, not least because he personally touted Solyndra as a beacon of “American ingenuity and dynamism” at a 2010 campaign stop, and a few of his big donors had financial stakes in the company. And so Republican investigators have pursued it with a vengeance, hoping to turn up the proverbial smoking gun that confirms their darkest suspicions — so far, with no luck.

A White House source passed along some information that gives a sense of just how much time, money, and effort has been spent pursuing this investigation: House Republicans have sent 32 congressional letters, compelled 187,000 pages of administration documents, 72,000 pages of documents from Solyndra investors, 9 committee staff briefings, 5 committee hearings, and a sworn committee interview with the Obama bundler who raised money from people involved in the company. Much (but not all) of the committee’s $7 million budget has been devoted to funding this inquisition. And it’s turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.

One reason the investigation persists is that it’s a handy pretext for demanding documents, and who knows what could turn up? But Democrats have also done a pretty lousy job of defending against the idea that something nefarious was going on. The clearest evidence that Solyndra was a worthy recipient of a government loan is that it also attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from big-name private investors and top venture capital firms, including Richard Branson, KKR, and Argonaut Private Equity (the full list is included in this bankruptcy filing [pdf]). In 2010, the Wall Street Journal named Solyndra the top venture-backed clean-tech company. MIT Technology Review named it one of the world’s 50 most innovative companies. Goldman Sachs was the lead investment banker. So the notion that Solyndra was a boondoggle for Obama cronies is silly.

What’s more, it was one of 28 companies that received loan guarantees under an Energy Department program, and the possibility that some of those companies might fail was anticipated by the program’s authors: they budgeted $2.5 billion to cover any failures.

The real problem Solyndra illustrates is that the political world has a much harder time accepting failure than the business world. In light of this reality, the question that ought to be examined is whether it makes sense for the government to subsidize private businesses. The mess Solyndra has left behind — many startups are now wary of accepting government support, even if they could use it — has been costly to everyone involved, not least the taxpayers. In business, you cut your losses and move on. But in Congress, there’s no penalty for throwing good money after bad.

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