Conservatives Conquer the Export-Import Bank

The charter of the 81-year-old lending agency expired in a rare win for the right. But will it stay down for long?

Jeb Hensarling, a conservative leader in the House, has led the push to kill the Export-Import Bank. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Conservatives have had a rough start to the summer: Republican appointees on the Supreme Court helped enshrine same-sex marriage as a constitutional right and reaffirmed Obamacare as the law of the land. President Obama is coming off arguably the best week of his presidency, and his poll numbers are rising (although, to be fair, so are Donald Trump’s).

Yet without much notice, the far right did score a victory this week, when at midnight on Wednesday, the charter of the U.S. Export-Import Bank expired for the first time in its 81-year history. Little-known to most Americans outside Washington or the business community, the Export-Import Bank is a federal lending agency that helps U.S. firms connect with markets overseas. Its backers assert that the bank supports hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

But for the last several years, the bank has become enmeshed in a proxy battle between Tea Party-aligned conservatives who want to kill the bank and establishment Republicans (and most Democrats) who have supported it for decades. Led by Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas conservative who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, critics of the bank say it exemplifies a kind of “crony capitalism” in which government assistance goes disproportionately to large corporations like Boeing and General Electric that don’t need federal help.

The conservative victory came as a result of Congress doing what it does best: Nothing. Despite an aggressive push from Democrats, the White House, and powerful industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, neither the House nor Senate held binding votes on its reauthorization as the deadline approached. Conservatives rejoiced. “We did it!”exclaimed Heritage Action in a statement tweeted at midnight.

On the Ex-Im Bank’s website, the homepage looks almost like a 404 message, featuring the words “AUTHORITY HAS LAPSED” in big capital letters.

Despite the expired charter, the bank is not completely shuttered. While it cannot make any new loans, Congress already appropriated funds for it through the end of September, and it can continue to manage its preexisting loans, guarantees, and insurance policies. As The New York Times noted, the bank’s doors were open Wednesday morning, and none of its 420 employees were furloughed. The economic implications pale in comparison to a debt default or a government shutdown. And both backers and opponents of the Export-Import Bank acknowledge that the fight over its future is far from over. That’s especially true after the topsy-turvy congressional debate on trade in June, when legislation left for dead was revived—and enacted—barely a week later.

Hours before the midnight deadline, Obama convened a conference call of business leaders to reassure them he was “confident” the bank would eventually be reauthorized. He urged them to speak out and contact members of Congress, and he pushed back against the argument from the right that the bank was a form of corporate welfare. “The notion that this somehow only benefits big companies is wrong,” Obama said, according to The Hill. “This helps small- and medium-sized businesses — and by the way, big companies like Boeing or G.E. have a whole lot of small and medium-sized businesses who are suppliers of theirs.”

After the lengthy debate on the president’s trade agenda, Congress departed for a recess last week without addressing the Ex-Im Bank. But in order to secure the final Democratic votes on trade, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised bank supporters he’d bring the charter up for a vote in July, and he acknowledged over the weekend that the reauthorization was likely to pass as part of legislation extending the Highway Trust Fund. That would throw the battle back to the House, where Hensarling has used his perch atop the financial services committee to rally conservatives against the bank. In a statement released when the charter’s expiration became apparent, Hensarling said the bank represented “yesterday’s economy” and hurt more American workers than it helped. He’s joined in that assessment by fellow conservatives like Paul Ryan, but also by liberals like Bernie Sanders, who see the bank as a gift to big business.

House Republican leaders have gone around Hensarling before, and they may do so again. Speaker John Boehner has traditionally aligned with the business community and supported the bank in the past, but this time he’s promised only to allow both critics and supporters to make their case on the floor if the Senate votes to bring the bank back to life. Within hours of the deadline passing on Wednesday, the lobbying on the right began anew. Conservatives issued warnings to McConnell and Boehner while preaching “vigilance”  against attempts to sneak the reauthorization through later this summer. “Now the challenge for supporters of a competitive free-market economy is to make sure Ex-Im stays expired,” Hensarling said. There was little time to savor a hard-earned conservative victory, because there’s a decent chance it might not last very long.