Washington — Left for dead five months ago, the federal Export-Import Bank lives on.
The bank, which provides loan guarantees and other financial assistance to U.S. companies selling goods abroad, was revived as part of the big highway bill approved by Congress last week. That bill is headed to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it, providing a victory for the bank’s supporters in their long and tortuous struggle to keep it alive.
At least, for now: The bank’s charter is to be renewed for four years, and opponents already are talking about taking up the fight again in 2019.
Those supporters and opponents line up in somewhat unusual patterns in the Louisiana congressional delegation. The split divides the Republicans in the House and foreshadows the expected rivalry between Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, and John Fleming, of Minden, as both run for the Senate in 2016.
Boustany, first elected to the House in 2004, is a strong supporter of the bank. Although generally conservative, Boustany, 59, is comfortable with a role for government in the economy.
Fleming, who came to Congress in 2008, opposes the bank. More of a right-wing ideologue than Boustany, Fleming, 64, was a founder this year of the House Freedom Caucus, a restive group of tea party types working to push the House Republican agenda to the right. The caucus was instrumental in ending the reign of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, this fall.
Supporters of the Ex-Im Bank generally say it aids U.S. exporters and creates jobs by providing financial guarantees, enabling sales to foreign customers, particularly in parts of the world where conventional banks may fear to tread. They say the bank actually produces a profit for the U.S. Treasury. Dozens of other countries, they say, provide export credit for their companies and shutting down the Ex-Im Bank amounts to unilateral disarmament that puts U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage.
Opponents of the bank say it’s a prime example of crony capitalism. Giant multinational companies are the major beneficiaries of the program, they say. The bookkeeping that shows the bank as profitable is flawed, opponents say, and it costs the taxpayers money. And they argue that if the financing arrangements actually do make sense, the private sector will provide them.
Democrats in Congress overwhelmingly support the bank. When joined by the bank’s allies among Main Street Republicans, that provides a pro-bank majority. In 2012, the year the bank last came up for reauthorization, Fleming, Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, and 91 other House Republicans voted no. The 330 “yes” votes came from 147 Republicans and 183 Democrats.
But this year, the reauthorization was blocked by opposition from key members of the House Republican majority, particularly Jeb Hensarling, of Texas, the chairman of the Financial Services Committee that holds jurisdiction over the issue. Scalise is still against it, and he is now majority whip, No. 3 in the leadership hierarchy. Kevin McCarthy, of California, who is at No. 2 as majority leader, also is an opponent. The renewal never came to the House floor, and the bank’s charter expired June 30.
The bank’s backers did not give up. In July, the Senate approved a reauthorization measure, 64-29 (both Louisiana senators, Republicans Bill Cassidy and David Vitter, voted no). Boehner supported the bank, but its prospects were clouded when he was toppled in September.
In the midst of the turmoil over the succession to Boehner, a pro-bank Republican, Stephen Fincher, of Tennessee, went with the nuclear option: a discharge petition, which forces a bill to the floor if a majority of the full House signs it. It’s a rarely successful ploy, because it means seizing control of the legislative procedure from the party in power, so it requires defections from the majority ranks. But Boustany and 40 other Republicans joined with Fincher to sign the petition, combining with 176 Democrats (including the only Louisiana Democrat, Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans) to provide the number needed.
That led to two floor votes: one to bring the reauthorization before the full House and a second on approval of the reauthorization itself. Boustany and Richmond voted yes both times; Fleming and Scalise voted no. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, voted yes on the first and no on the second, while Garret Graves, of Baton Rouge, voted no and then yes. Both measures passed.
Ultimately, the reauthorization was folded into the highway bill. All Louisiana members of Congress voted for that bill — except Fleming.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is groberts@the advocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.