Renewing U.S. Export-Import Bank divides House GOP

For U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, it’s a no-brainer. The U.S. Export-Import Bank, he says, “is good for Louisiana, and it’s good for our country.”

But many of his fellow Republicans in the House disagree. Reps. John Fleming, of Minden, and Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, have been part of Republican opposition to the bank, which is viewed by many ideological conservatives as an unnecessary government intrusion into the private marketplace and an example of “crony capitalism.”

“As a conservative, I believe that we should not be providing welfare to people who otherwise can do well by their own efforts,” Fleming said recently. “If we want to reform welfare for the average everyday American, then we certainly should take it away from big corporations.”

The future of the 80-year-old federal institution is on the line this summer: Unless Congress votes to reauthorize it by Sept. 30, the bank will wind down its operations and eventually go out of business.

It’s an odd subject to divide the Republican Party and to invoke fundamental questions about the party’s direction and future — and to challenge conventional assumptions about which party is more business-friendly. It lacks the popular resonance of issues such as immigration and gun control. It’s not even clear the bank costs the taxpayers anything: Boustany and other defenders of the bank say it actually yields a profit for the federal treasury.

But the stakes are considerable, Boustany said recently.

“In order to grow the economy,” he said, “we need to expand export opportunities.” The best way to do that, he said, is to ensure access to foreign markets for small and mid-sized firms. And the key to that, he said, is the availability of reliable financing of a kind not readily obtained through the private sector — namely, what the Ex-Im Bank provides.

“It allows us to make sales into parts of the world where, without that Ex-Im guarantee, one of your banks on a stand-alone basis may not have an interest,” businessman Kevin Dolan said. He’s chief financial officer of DSC Dredge, a company in Reserve that designs, manufactures and services dredging equipment. “There are certain parts of the world where the private sector doesn’t want to touch it.”

At DSC Dredge, which has 150 employees, exports account for 50 percent to 60 percent of its business, Dolan said, and the company has turned to the bank to support sales to Bangladesh, Nigeria and Colombia.

“Without that international growth,” he said, “we don’t need the employee base we currently have.”

Basically, the Ex-Im Bank assumes some of the financial and political risks of doing business overseas.

The bank provides a variety of services to exporters. It may advance them working capital to make products for sale abroad. It may provide types of insurance. It may guarantee the value of money owed on an account by qualifying foreign customers, which allows a U.S. company to use that receivable as collateral for a loan from a domestic bank.

Boustany said more than 150 Louisiana export companies turn to the Ex-Im Bank for specialized financial services — companies such as Reliable Industries on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, which employs 40 workers selling spare parts for filtration equipment and other U.S.-made products.

“While there are commercial products available in the market, I’ve never seen anybody as responsive, or more in tune with what a small company’s needs are, as Ex-Im Bank,” company President Mike Rongey said.

That’s a result of the distortion of the system, Fleming said. “When the government steps in and takes over a certain market, in this case loans for exports, the private sector dries up” — much as happened with student loans for college, he said.

A larger point made by opponents is that small and mid-sized businesses like DSC Dredge and Reliable Industries, which make up the overwhelming majority of individual customers of the bank, nonetheless account for a minority of the $27.2 billion in services the bank provides annually in support of 2 percent of all U.S. exports.

In the past fiscal year, research by George Mason University in Virginia shows, one company — aerospace giant Boeing — and its affiliates received $8 billion of the total of $12 billion in Ex-Im loan guarantees, the single largest category of service.

One issue in dispute is whether the bank costs taxpayers anything. The bank itself says it has operated $2 billion in the black over the past five years, thanks mainly to interest payments collected on its loans. By congressionally mandated accounting methods, the bank is projected to yield $14 billion on the upside over the next 10 years — but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says more accurate methods forecast a $2 billion loss over the same period.

When the bank last came up for reauthorization, in 2012, Fleming, Scalise and 91 other House Republicans voted no. The 330 yes votes came from 147 Republicans and 183 Democrats.

Democrats are leading the push for reauthorization this year, making common cause with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other pillars of American business usually associated with Republicans. There are still a sizable number of Republicans in the House, where their party holds the majority, who are reluctant to kill the bank outright, and they could provide the support for a reauthorization, possibly with modifications on who gets the money.

Boustany and 40 other House Republicans wrote last month to their party’s top-ranking House leaders, Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, and incoming Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, to urge approval of the bank.

“In a perfect world,” they wrote, “this type of export financing would not be necessary.” But given that Germany, France, China, Brazil, India, South Korea and dozens of other countries operate their own export-financing programs, failure to reauthorize the U.S. version would amount to “unilateral disarmament,” the letter said.

“We’ll get to an agreement where we can pass a bill,” Boustany predicted. He said the Democratic-controlled Senate may attach the reauthorization to some “must-pass” bill and send it to the House.

But the anti-bank forces are encouraged by the recent Republican House leadership shuffle that has elevated McCarthy, an opponent of the bank, to majority leader to succeed Eric Cantor, a strong Ex-Im supporter who was knocked out in a June primary. Scalise, too, is moving up, to the No. 3 position of majority whip.

Boehner has said he will let the troops work it out. Meanwhile, the critics are picking up more wind in their sails from news reports that bank managers are under investigation for receiving kickbacks from companies to approve deals.

“There’s a very good likelihood, more so than ever, that the bank will not be brought up for reauthorization,” Fleming said. “I hear more calls than ever to end it.”

Follow Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington bureau on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.