In a series of tense exchanges, Republicans on a House oversight panel sharply questioned whether the Obama administration was looking to inflate the number of "green" jobs by using a broad definition -- which, as it turns out, counts virtually anybody working in mass transit.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, grilled officials from the departments of Energy and Labor during his hearing Thursday. The meeting quickly turned into a forum for Republicans to vent their frustration with the government's subsidization of the clean-energy sector, in the wake of a controversy over loans to a now-bankrupt solar firm.
Issa and other Republicans alleged that taxpayers were not getting their money's worth.
"Three years and billions of taxpayer dollars later, the American people have received very little return on the president's signature investment," Issa said.
Official data on green jobs are hard to come by. The Bureau of Labor Statistics currently is trying to come up with a workable definition and formula to track green-jobs employment. The bureau expects to have its first estimate out early next year.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis pointed to a separate study claiming 2.7 million Americans are in "clean economy" positions.
But Republicans said the working term the government is using is far too broad, suggesting officials were trying to pad the figures.
"It's offensive," Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., said, raising his voice while questioning Solis.
Mack argued that just because a bus driver is driving a hybrid bus doesn't mean it's a green job.
"Yes it is," Solis countered.
"It's only a green job if it fits into your sales pitch," Mack shot back.
The BLS is working off a definition that would count as green any job that provides goods or services "that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources." In addition, it would count jobs where workers' duties "involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly."
Issa prodded further, telling BLS Commissioner Keith Hall his numbers would be "wrong" without the assumption, for example, that some bus drivers are in green jobs. Hall then informed Issa the definition was broader.
"Our green jobs include mass transit, so actually any bus service," Hall said.
"Oh, ok," a visibly surprised Issa exclaimed. "So let me understand this. ... You're counting everyone that drives a bus as a green job."
Hall: "Mass transit is a green service."
Issa: "Oh. My. Goodness. I didn't know that."
Issa earlier claimed that the bureau is relying on bad numbers. "If I put LEDs in my office, apparently my staff becomes a green staff," he said.
Hall later argued that "every single bus may replace dozens of cars."
Republicans started and ended the hearing operating off deeply different assumptions than the witnesses and congressional Democrats.
Administration officials claimed the clean-energy field represents the future and is viable.
"The vibrancy of the green economy is not artificially propped up by Recovery Act investments," Solis said.
"This is an enormous market," deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said, noting America has fallen to third place globally in clean-energy investment. "This is a race. ... We can and must compete."
Rep. Gerry Connolly, R-Va., accused GOP committee leaders of pushing a "false premise" in order to embarrass the administration. He described the hearing's underlying message as a "raw partisan assertion that presupposes the answer."
He was referring to the title of the hearing: "How Obama's Green Energy Agenda is Killing Jobs."
In a report of the same name, the committee majority claimed again that taxpayers have received "little return" from Obama's investment. The report also examined the definition of green jobs and suggested the BLS definition was too broad.
"College professors that teach classes related to ecology, reporters that write about environmental issues and policy experts at think tanks discussing environmental policy all would seem to meet this criteria," the report said.
While Issa has hammered the administration over Solyndra, a report from Bloomberg showed he's supported clean energy projects in the past, particularly when they would affect his home state. According to the article, Issa wrote to the Energy Department in support of a loan for a California electric-car maker in early 2010. He also signed a 2009 letter with other California officials in support of California battery maker Quallion.