In 2010, congressional Republicans unveiled their Pledge to America. Its purpose was two-fold; first, show swing voters that they had an agenda; and second, reassure conservatives they would not repeat past mistakes, which left conservatives hungover from an era of big-government conservatism that included everything from earmarks and disastrous highway bills to Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind.
Broadly speaking, the Pledge was to be a plan for conservative governance. We revisit it now because there is a burgeoning fight worthy of attention: the pending reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
Briefly, the Ex-Im Bank is, as then-Senator Obama said, “little more than a fund for corporate welfare.” The Heritage Foundation has dubbed it the “Fannie Mae for exporters.” Even the Washington Post was skeptical, calling the Bank “inherently risky” and dismissing many arguments made by the Bank’s proponents.
At the end of May, the Bank’s legal charter expires, and its reauthorization is subject to fierce debate within the Republican Party. The Bank was last reauthorized in 2006 by unanimous consent, so the debate alone is noteworthy and a byproduct of the tea party wave that crashed into Washington in 2010.
The Wall Street Journal accurately put forth the stakes: “If the GOP wants to have a principled battle about fiscal waste and market distortions, this is a good one.”
Indeed, despite controlling “one-half of one-third of the federal government” House Republicans have an opportunity to eliminate an “inherently risky” agency that is “little more than a fund for corporate welfare.” By refusing to reauthorize the $100 billion Bank, House Republicans could secure a principled policy victory that would also play well politically with the American people.
As foreshadowed in the Pledge, such a bold move would be “mocked by the powers-that-be in Washington” even though it could “be implemented today.” Indeed, Fred Hochberg, the head of the Ex-Im Bank, chastised lawmakers in a speech last week saying, “some in Washington think government has no role to play.”
Instead of taking the fight to the Washington power structure and outlining the limits and distortions of government, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor is actively negotiating a compromise agreement with House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. Roll Call reported the approach will alienate conservatives, but will also “overcome a bloc of 50 to 70 Republicans who strongly oppose reauthorizing the bank’s lending authority.”
While details remain sparse, the gist of the compromise is a one-year extension with some policy tweaks, audits, added transparency and a multi-national effort to abolish export subsidies. It will be sold to conservatives as a plan to wind down the Ex-Im Bank, but that pitch rings hollow unless the bill actually sunsets the Bank and Congressmen Cantor and Hoyer publicly sell their compromise as the beginning of the end for the Bank.
If lawmakers are committed to scoring legislative achievements that “stands on the principles of smaller, more accountable government” that “can be implemented today” they would seize the opportunity presented by allowing the Bank’s legal charter to expire. If they believe an expiration would be somewhat chaotic, they could opt to wind the Bank down, as suggested by Congressmen Justin Amash (R-MI) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
The Export-Import Bank Termination Act of 2012 (H.R.4268) sets up a structure to shutter the Bank in just three years. Some have argued that the bill would have to come up with an offset, since the Bank makes a profit for the U.S. Treasury. The response is simple: we could sunset the Bank and return a profitable function to the private sector AND cut more spending. I say, game on!
Sadly, inside Washington, this constitutes high drama, but for most Americans, it represents the status quo. Rather than having an honest debate about the Ex-Im Bank – whether it should be reauthorized and expanded or allowed to expire – lawmakers are trying to split the difference and declare victory, while perpetuating the status quo.
Among the “adults” in Washington, there is always the temptation to pre-negotiate the optimal political solution to every legislative problem. That approach has resulted in nearly $15.7 trillion in debt and 37-straight months of unemployment above 8%. In short, it failed.
Rather than trying to “overcome” conservative objections to the Bank, House Republican leaders should stand on principle and their Pledge by allowing the Ex-Im Bank to expire.