The current argument in Congress over the Export-Import Bank isn’t just the biggest show of the September session, or even a matter of particular importance to trade-dependent Washington state. It’s also a chance for two Washington members to practice their debating skills.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, are rightly calling the latest proposal to emerge from U.S. House Republican leadership an act of political cowardice — a proposal to kick the issue ahead a few months, sometime after the election. Postponement would make it harder for American exporters to compete for overseas customers. And that’s at best, maintains Heck, prime sponsor of the House Democrats’ proposal to continue the bank for another seven years. Those who wish to delay debate “ought to be courageous enough to talk about what their very-short-term proposal is about,” he said. “It’s about killing Ex-Im.”
Shutting down the Export-Import bank isn’t quite as big a deal as shutting down the federal government, but there are plenty of similarities between last fall’s battle and the current end-of-the-fiscal-year fight — the deadline for a decision is Sept. 30. And a conservative faction of the House Republican majority — though not all conservatives, and certainly not a majority of the House — is taking a hard line. Opponents say the bank’s loans, loan guarantees and credit insurance represent a “subsidy” for large corporations, which is a rather unusual use of the word, given that the money is paid back and the bank turns a profit, meaning taxpayers don’t put up a dime. Nor is it entirely correct, because 20 percent of the bank’s trade by dollar value supports exports from businesses with fewer than 1,500 employees. That rises to 90 percent by number of transactions.
The Seattle Times has editorialized numerous times in favor of the bank’s continuance, including on Tuesday. Businesses in this state benefit in a big way, from Boeing on down. Deferring debate is a way to punt on a matter that surely would pass if House Republican leaders would allow a vote.
Cantwell, cosponsor of a bipartisan Senate bill that would reauthorize the bank for five years, was among senators who spoke in favor of the Ex-Im Bank on the Senate floor Tuesday. She called the postponement “ridiculous.” Already there are anecdotal reports that American firms are losing business, she said, because end purchasers cannot be sure financing will be available.
“We have 21 days left to get this right and to help our economy continue to grow, but we have to do something here in the United States Senate,” she said. “We have too much of a supply chain in the United States of America — with manufacturing in aerospace, in agriculture, and in automobiles — to give it all away by simply not reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank in a timely fashion.”
Heck bristles at arguments raised by Delta Air Lines, the only prominent American business raising opposition to the Ex-Im Bank, as outlined in a recent op-ed piece in the Times. Delta’s beef is that Boeing is able to procure financing for overseas airlines that directly compete with Delta. But Heck points out that Delta gets plenty of government support itself. The airline dumped its pension obligations on the federal government, at a cost of nearly $1 billion; it got direct payments from the federal government after 9/11; and it is protected from foreign competition by rules prohibiting foreign carriers from flying domestic routes. A Brazilian airline gets Ex-Im financing for Delta maintenance services, he said. And he notes that Delta has used other countries’ export-credit agencies to purchase regional jets from Bombardier, a Canadian company, and Embraer, a Brazilian company. Delta flies nearly two dozen routes into Canada, where it competes with Canadian airlines that cannot tap that country’s export assistance.
Heck said, “All of this reminds me of the ancient wisdom: airlines that live in houses made of taxpayer-subsidized glass shouldn’t throw stones.”