Since the Export-Import Bank was founded in 1934, Congress has methodically renewed its charter two-dozen times with little or no controversy, attesting to the independent federal agency's low-key, generally well-regarded mission of helping finance American companies' overseas sales.
This year, however, with Congress at its dysfunctional worst, it's different.
In the Senate, reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank enjoys wide bipartisan support, but Democrats and Republicans can't agree on a voting process. In the House, Republicans are torn between their business allies who are strong Ex-Im backers and conservative groups which say the agency should be eliminated. Add to that a dispute between Boeing Co., a major beneficiary of Ex-Im financing, and Delta Air Lines, which says such financing has hurt its bottom line.
The bank's current charter expires at the end of this month. At about the same time, the institution will hit its statutory lending cap of $100 billion.
In March, Senate Democrats proposed renewing the bank's charter for four years and raising the lending cap to $140 billion. But when they tried to attach that to a bill promoting small business investment, Republicans rebelled and shot it down.
Republicans said they were happy to take up the bank's renewal as a separate measure subject to a few amendments, but didn't want it slowing down passage of the small business bill, a GOP favorite. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisted, saying the renewal needed to be attached to the small business measure, or another bill heading for passage, to have a chance of getting through the House.
Since then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who originally sought a shorter and more restrictive reauthorization, and the House's second-ranked Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, have been trying to negotiate a deal that can satisfy the bank's House critics while still being acceptable to the Senate.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Bruce Josten wrote lawmakers that failure to find a solution and extend the bank's life "would amount to unilateral disarmament in the face of other nations' aggressive trade finance programs."
"Whether you like it or not, other countries are Export-Import Bank on steroids," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose state of South Carolina is manufacturing Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner. "If we just get out of this business, companies like Boeing will be unable to sell their airplanes."
Graham and others point out that while the Ex-Im Bank provided $32 billion in financing last year, its counterpart agency in Canada financed three times that amount and China backed up its exports with some $300 billion in financing.
The Export-Import Bank provides financing support for about 2 percent of U.S. exports, stepping in when private banks leery of more risky foreign sales are reluctant to offer the credit the U.S. company needs for working capital or the foreign buyer needs to secure a loan. Most of its support comes in the form of loan guarantees, but it also offers direct loans and credit insurance.
The bank says that its transactions supported some 290,000 American jobs at no cost to taxpayers. It operates through fees and interest charged its customers and over the past five years has paid $1.9 billion into the Treasury.
Still, conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America are urging lawmakers to reject Ex-Im Bank reauthorization and have made it a "key vote" in how they rate lawmakers' records. The groups say the bank distorts markets and picks winners and losers in the private sector. "Not only should members of Congress reject this expansion of authority, but they should reject the bank's charter and shut it down for good," the Club for Growth said.
It's not the first time Republicans have been pulled in opposite directions by small-government devotees on one side and their business friends or constituents on the other. A similar situation arose on a still-pending bill to finance highways and other infrastructure and on legislation to keep federal student loan interest rates low. In this case, the conservatives' ties to the business community appear to be winning out.
In late April, 30 House Republicans wrote Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner that "as conservatives, we believe it is imperative that Congress move forward with a multiyear reauthorization of Ex-Im that provides certainty and stability for U.S. manufacturers and exporters as soon as possible." They said that, while in a perfect world there would be no need for this type of export financing, "it seems counterproductive to unilaterally disengage."
They also noted that more than 700 small businesses were among the companies that used the bank for the first time last year, echoing the bank's assertions that it is far more than "Boeing's bank."
Last year 87 percent of the bank's transactions directly benefited small business, a total of $6 billion in export-financing support. At the same time the bank helped finance about $11 billion worth of Boeing's large commercial sales, supporting 85,000 aerospace jobs and assuring that Boeing can compete on a more equal footing with Airbus.
But it also eases the way for foreign carriers, such as Air India, to buy Boeing's newest aircraft, and Delta argues that this has resulted in it being squeezed out of some markets, to the detriment of its workforce.
The airline is not against Ex-Im reauthorization, said Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter. But he said the bank needs to be more transparent in its dealings and assure that its analyses of how financing affects employment extend to airline employees as well as aircraft manufacturers. He also urged the government to open negotiations with Europe on finding a way for both sides to get out of the business of export credit for aircraft sales.