Republicans’ secret love of ‘crony capitalism’

I spent some time over the weekend reading up on the Solyndra “controversy,” hoping to get a better sense of what all the fuss is about. I’m still not sure why anyone would find this fascinating.

The company developed a solar technology that offered real promise, and was one of many outlets to receive loans, some through private investors, some through the Department of Energy. The market shifted, prices dropped, and Solyndra was forced to fold. Taxpayers lost out, but it wasn’t a lot of money, there was nothing improper about the loans, and this was the kind of risk Americans expect public-private partnerships to take. It’s the price of experimentation and innovation — sometimes these investments work out, sometimes they don’t.

Republicans are eager to present this as some kind of “scandal,” though there are no credible allegations of wrongdoing on anyone’s part. So why does the GOP keep talking about it? Aside from the fact that the right is desperate to undermine the Obama administration regardless of cause, conservatives are also looking for an excuse to oppose clean-energy programs, and Solyndra offers an excuse — it’s “proof,” the right says, that these investments are a waste.

Even at face value, it’s a bizarre argument. After all, one failed company does not a doomed industry make. But there’s another important angle to this: some of the same Republicans complaining about the Department of Energy’s loan-guarantees program for clean tech have also fought for funding from the same program for companies in their own states.

The example involving Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), best known for his prostitutes, is especially hilarious.

…Vitter has filed a bill to increase scrutiny of taxpayer-financed renewable energy projects. It wouldn’t scrutinize taxpayer-financed non-renewable energy projects, like the nuclear reactors that Vitter so ardently supports. It wouldn’t scrutinize why a certain Louisiana Senator has worked so hard to protect oil companies from liability for their spills. It would just crack down on Big Renewables.

“We can’t afford any more crony capitalism,” Vitter said in Wednesday. Vitter should know. He’s written a bunch of letters to the Energy Department’s loan program seeking loans for renewable energy firms.

For example, on July 1, 2009, Vitter and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana wrote Energy Secretary Steven Chu to support a loan application by the V Vehicle Company, a clean-car start-up (backed by T. Boone Pickens and the venture capital leviathan Kleiner Perkins) that was planning a Louisiana factory. “This vehicle would serve as a catalyst for job creation,” they wrote. A year later, Vitter joined the entire Louisiana delegation in another letter pushing “expedited consideration” for VVC. Alas, the Energy Department rejected the loan, citing concerns about the company’s financial viability. Vitter must have been annoyed by all this due diligence, because in December 2010 — after VVC changed its name to Next Autoworks — he, Landrieu and Congressman Rodney Alexander tried once more. “Every day that Next Autoworks’ application is delayed is another day that workers cannot be hired,” the wrote. So far, no luck.

Vitter only seems to decry “crony capitalism” when it’s his cronies who aren’t getting the capital. All told, he sought loan guarantees from Department of Energy’s program — the very program Vitter now considers scandalous — seven times.

What’s more, it’s not just the right-wing, scandal-plagued Louisianan. The New York Times reports today that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been busy condemning the federal loans to clean-energy projects, while simultaneously pushing for federal loans to clean-energy projects in his home state of Kentucky. In one instance, McConnell pushed for a DOE loan for a company that had hired a lobbyist that also gave McConnell generous campaign donations.

Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) are in a similar boat, condemning the clean-tech loans while praising clean-tech loans in their districts.

I’m starting to think when Republicans decided to raise a fuss over this, they didn’t quite think it through.