WASHINGTON – In a victory for the business establishment over tea party conservatives, President Barack Obama signed legislation Friday reviving the federal Export-Import Bank five months after Congress allowed it to expire.
The bank is a small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods. A measure extending it through 2019 was included in a massive transportation bill that cleared the House and Senate late Thursday and was signed Friday by Obama.
The development was cheered by business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which say the Ex-Im Bank is necessary for U.S. competitiveness since most overseas competitors rely on similar government help. But conservatives pushed by the billionaire GOP Koch Brothers decried the development, arguing that the bank amounts to government interference in the free market and many of its beneficiaries are large corporations that don’t really need the help.
“The Export-Import Bank’s revival in this bill is especially offensive to taxpayers who want to end corporate welfare handouts and let the free market finance overseas investments by American companies,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Rubio is among the GOP presidential candidates and other leading Republicans who’ve lined up against the bank, a once-obscure entity that’s become a cause celebre for conservatives led by the Koch Brothers in recent years. For decades it was renewed by bipartisan agreement, with little or no debate and often not even a rollcall vote. But after the Koch Brothers and other conservative groups began to seize on the opportunity to kill off a federal agency, leading Republicans such as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy who once supported the bank, turned against it.
Amid that pressure and with tea party lawmakers on the ascent on Capitol Hill, Congress failed to act when the bank’s charter was up for renewal June 30, allowing it to expire for the first time in its 81-year history.
All along, though, a majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate, including Republicans and Democrats with major manufacturers such as General Electric, Caterpillar or Boeing in their districts, supported the bank. An unusual series of manoeuvrs and alliances followed, including a rarely used procedure in the House to force a floor vote on the bank over the objections of top GOP leaders.
The end result was that the measure ended up on the highway bill and five months after expiring, the Ex-Im Bank is getting back in business.
“We brought the Export-Import Bank back to life, so American manufacturers and workers can compete against our foreign competitors on a level playing field,” said GOP Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is facing a tough re-election fight and took the opportunity to issue a joint statement with leading CEOs. The bank says that last year it authorized $20 billion worth of transactions which supported $27.5 billion of U.S. exports and 164,000 U.S. jobs.
However, conservatives and the Koch Brothers said they’re not done yet.
In an interview, Marc Short, president of the Koch-backed Freedom Partners, said that in four years’ time when the bank is up for renewal again, opponents will prevail, thanks to efforts over the past several years to raise the issue’s profile.
“Ironically … we believe we’re putting the final nails in the coffin of Ex-Im,” Short said. “We’ve been able to elevate Ex-Im as an issue that resonates with a broader cross-section of the American people.”