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Is the Export-Import Bank Conservative?

Fred Hochberg, Chairman of the Export Import Bank, U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

“Crony capitalism, crony capitalism, that’s all they ever say, over and over again.”

Arkansas Republican Randy Barsalou’s words to the New York Times aptlydescribe the Republican establishment’s frustration with Tea Party free marketeers. The latter’s strong nose for cronyism often pits them against their GOP allies, who are less dogmatic about free-market issues. This has recently become evident in debates over the little-known Export-Import Bank, and whether Congress should reauthorize it—as reporter Jonathan Weisman wrote Monday:

The Export-Import Bank guarantees loans to overseas customers of thousands of American companies. Without congressional reauthorization, it will cease to exist after June 30 — an 81-year-old institution felled by the passions of the Tea Party movement. Conservatives hold the bank up as the essence of crony capitalism, a market-distorting favor factory for huge companies like Boeing and Caterpillar. Its death, they argue, would herald a new era of free-market governance.

In the last two weeks, the battle over whether to save it or let it die has begun in earnest.

For conservatives, frustrated by their failure to overturn the Affordable Care Act or stop President Obama’s immigration policies, killing the Export-Import Bank has taken on enormous importance. They do not have to overcome a presidential veto or beat a Democratic filibuster. They simply have to refuse to bring it to a vote.

Created in 1934, the “Ex-Im Bank” is meant to “supplement and encourage” private sources of capital, reach international agreements to reduce government-subsidized export financing, and provide financing at rates and on terms that are “fully competitive” with those of other foreign government-supported export credit agencies (12 U.S.C. 635 (b)(1)(A)(B)). “Supporters believe that the Eximbank helps U.S. companies compete against foreign companies that receive government support and provide leverage in trade policy negotiations,” says the Government Accounting Office in a report about Ex-Im.

But Washington Examiner columnist and investigative reporter Tim Carney disagrees: “Ex-Im Bank guarantees private loans to foreign buyers to buy U.S. goods,” he said during a panel on cronyism at February’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “This takes away the moral underpinning for free enterprise. We have to believe that when people pursue profit in open, free market, it opens up opportunities for all.”

The Congressional Research Service summarizes the two conflicting sides thus:

Debate over Ex-Im Bank reauthorization is rooted in an underlying debate over the appropriate role of the U.S. government in export promotion. Congressional and stakeholder views on Ex-Im Bank vary. Proponents contend that the Bank supports U.S. exports and jobs by addressing shortfalls in private sector financing and helping U.S. exporters compete against foreign companies backed by their governments’ ECAs. Critics assert that it crowds out private sector activity, picks winners and losers through its support, operates as a form of “corporate welfare,” and poses a risk to taxpayers.

Does Ex-Im create U.S. jobs, as its proponents suggest? Not according to the Government Accountability Office, which says government export programs like Ex-Im “largely shift production among sectors within the economy rather than raise the overall level of employment in the economy.” Delta airlines claims that “By some estimates, the [Ex-Im] Bank’s loan guarantees have resulted in up to 7,500 lost U.S. carrier jobs, and up to $684 million of lost income for U.S. airline employees annually.”

Even the money that does help create U.S. jobs doesn’t really assist small businesses, says the House Committee on Financial Services: even though “Congress requires that 20% of Ex-Im’s authorizations go to small businesses,” they report that “Ex-Im consistently fails to meet this statutory requirement.  In reality, only .01 percent of America’s small businesses receive any help at all from Ex-Im.”

Finally, according to data from Ex-Im and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Ex-Im financed only about 1 percent of total U.S. exports in 2014. It doesn’t seem that critical to our economy.

However, there is a diplomatic/foreign policy angle to this debate that shouldn’t be overlooked. As the GAO notes in a report about Ex-Im, “Seventy-three countries have export credit agencies,” and each of the seven largest G-7 industrial nations “maintains various types of export finance assistance programs. … [These programs] all help exporters compete for market share in developing markets by providing loans, guarantees, and insurance.” According to this view, the Ex-Im Bank fulfills a national interest by ensuring our competition with the outside world—a world in which some economic players aren’t as devoted to free market principles as we might like.

But free-market defenders would argue that such a position leads to protectionism, which “runs exactly counter to the principles of free trade and private enterprise that Adam Smith enunciated and that have enriched the world,” as my fellow associate editor Jonathan Coppage adroitly characterized the argument. “Business should do business where it can, and governments picking winners and losers leads to an arms race with everyone camped behind their borders, not freely trading, not being mutually benefited.” Carney points out that even if the bank’s defenders “point to foreign Ex-Im banks to justify U.S. Ex-Im,” those banks are also pointing at usto justify their subsidies.

Both sides have their strengths: whether from a national interest perspective, or from an economic viewpoint. As in many foreign policy debates, this issue comes down to whether we think governments must energetically compete with each other, or whether we think a laissez faire approach can, in fact, be beneficial to all parties.

If Republicans do not renew the Ex-Im bank, they’re likely to face push-back from their constituents, like Ted Cruz has. For them, standing firm on Ex-Im may become a politicized and even damaging move. As the GAO notes, “Given the growing importance of exports to national economic performance, and the belief that government export finance programs contribute to this performance, achieving the ultimate objective of eliminating all financial subsidies may prove difficult.”

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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