By Krista Hughes
WASHINGTON - Former top U.S. officials have urged Congress to keep the Export-Import Bank alive to shore up the United States' economic and security interests.
In a letter sent to Congressional leaders late on Wednesday, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and 10 other senior figures said exporters helped spread American values and strengthen its interests overseas and Ex-Im was an important tool to compete and secure business in overseas markets.
The export credit agency, which provides support to U.S. exporters and the buyers of U.S. goods, is targeted for closure by some conservative Republicans who say it usurps the role of the private sector and provides "welfare" for big business.
"From our prior experience in government, each of us has seen how commercial and economic diplomacy have become critical elements of US national security," said the letter, whose signatories include former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and previous White House chiefs of staff.
"The involvement of U.S. companies in emerging markets is fundamentally beneficial to the American economy while helping to drive growth, prosperity and political stability abroad."
The bank has been criticized for helping to finance purchases from big companies such as Boeing Co <BA.N> and Caterpillar Inc <CAT.N>, but supporters contend it also helps many small businesses that cannot get export insurance from private banks.
The letter said China was expanding its reach in Africa, particularly through long-term infrastructure projects, and Ex-Im was a valuable tool to counter competitors.
"Unilateral disarmament has never been considered a viable defense policy, and we cannot think of a reason why it should be considered a rational export policy," the letter said.
Other signatories include former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, former U.S. Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez, and former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Stephen Hadley.
Ex-Im won a temporary extension late last year but without action from Congress, its charter will expire at the end of June.
Republican lawmaker Stephen Fincher has proposed a five-year extension that would trim the bank's lending cap but the chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over Ex-Im, Republican Jeb Hensarling is one of the bank's strongest critics and helps determine which bills come to the floor of Congress.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)