Bingaman responds to financial crisis

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By Roger Snodgrass

On a day spent visiting Los Alamos and the laboratory Thursday, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., came by the Monitor newsroom to offer his perspective on current issues.

He said he had been greeted with a lot of questions about the economy during this visit to the state.

While trying to see beyond the immediate crisis in global finance, he said, “A lot of folks can take some of the blame.”

A member of the Senate Finance Committee, Bingaman said that the administration’s initial rescue plan was too narrow at first, based as it was on buying up mortgage-backed securities, but the revised emergency economic stabilization act gave the government broader authority for using the $700 billion authorization to deal with the credit crunch and the sudden loss of liquidity among the nation’s financial institutions.

How much additional debt that would turn out to be for the federal government, Bingaman said, was “sort of unknowable, or at least unknown by me.”

He said it depends on whether matters get worse or whether it has the intended positive effect, which would help the country take a “more shallow” curve to economic recovery.

“Congress has essentially failed to resist the efforts of the administration to deregulate the financial markets,” he said of the causes. “Most of that was done through the administrative agencies and not by statute, but Congress let it happen.”

One positive result of the stabilization bill, perhaps not immediately noticed by the public, Bingaman said, was that a 30 percent tax credit for solar energy was extended for eight years for both business and commercial solar installations, and the terms improved.

Previously, the credit was capped at $2,000.

“We eliminated the cap,” Bingaman said.

Bingaman’s visit to the laboratory included the signing of a historic subcontract with a tribal company owned by Ohkay Ohwingeh for janitorial services over the next five years.

He said he had heard a briefing earlier in the day by Albert Migliori, the physicist who gave the most recent Frontiers in Science lecture around the region on behalf of the laboratory. Migliore shares a number of concerns with Bingaman, especially in the areas of energy policy and renewable energy sources.

“They’re making progress.” Bingaman said, on the question of diversification at the laboratory,

“They’re involved in a lot of work not related to the weapons program,” he said. “My challenge is to help them grow those activities.”

Asked about the difficulties in getting appropriation bills through Congress, Bingaman said that although congressional appropriators had failed to deliver specific funding bills for the Department of Energy and its national laboratories in the last couple of years, the energy bills that had passed in 2005 and 2007 were both significant.

The 2005 bill, he said was “the most comprehensive energy bill in history,” notable for measures that encouraged nuclear power, domestic oil production, renewable energy and biofuels.

A key provisions in the 2007 energy bill was a long time coming, Bingaman said, and was criticized by some as not enough, but at least it finally raised the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards.

“With a 51-49 split (between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate), it’s difficult,” he said.