WASHINGTON-A subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted along party lines Thursday to subpoena documents from the White House regarding Solyndra, the solar panel company that ate up more than a half-billion dollars in federal loans before declaring bankruptcy.
The vote, which authorizes the committee chairman to issue a subpoena to the White House, marks a culmination of months of inquiries by Republicans into Solyndra, an investigation that began before the company declared bankruptcy at the end of August.
The day before the vote, the White House agreed to share thousands pages of documents related to the deal, which revealed that the administration had considered and rejected bailing out Solyndra right before it declared bankruptcy, a cash infusion that would have made the government part-owner of the solar panel company. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said getting those documents was "like extracting a tooth without anesthesia."
Republicans met with White House counsel the night before the vote, but Upton said the counsel gave them "open-ended pledges" to provide more documents. "They're using the same tactics now, which means we have no choice but to expect the same outcome and move forward with the subpoena," Upton said. "I wish it had not come to this, but it has."
Upton is considered one of the few moderate Republicans left in the House: He has supported tighter oil pipeline regulations, for example.
The subpoena vote follows on the heels of the Capitol Hill testimony of the Department of Energy's inspector general Wednesday. Inspector General Gregory Friedman noted that the agency was not equipped to distribute the billions of dollars of stimulus funds it had received. Solyndra was one of the companies that received stimulus funds, and the department's inspector general was the first to raise questions about the company's fiscal health.
The $35.2 billion in Department of Energy stimulus funding exceeded the agency's entire budget by $8 billion, and Friedman said recipients weren't prepared to handle the flood of funds. It was like "attaching a lawn hose to a fire hydrant," said Friedman. As of Oct. 22, about 45 percent of the stimulus money remains unspent, according to Friedman. "The federal, state, and local government infrastructures were, simply put, overwhelmed," he testified.
Democrats strongly objected to the subpoena, saying that Republicans were setting up an unprecedented confrontation with the president. "I didn't roll off the cabbage wagon yesterday," said 85-year-old Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee for 16 years. "I served many subpoenas on many people, but never on the White House."
Dingell said he always worked out disputes with White House counsel, even during Republican administrations. He told Chairman Upton that the subpoena vote would "give you authority that approximates that of Nero," and said the subpoena cast too wide a net, requiring information from the president's personal Blackberry, for example. "This is a fishing expedition," Dingell said.
"We have exercised restraint and patience over the months of this investigation," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., the chairman of the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which held the vote. "This is not a fishing expedition."
Upton hasn't finished the details of the subpoena, so he hasn't laid out which documents he might demand from the White House, but he said he would take into consideration the White House's release of documents Wednesday night when he determines the scope of the subpoena.