A Program Worth Bridging The Ideological Divide (Robert Coon On Politics)

(Editor's Note: This is an opinion column.)

What initially started as a fault line between mainstream, establishment Republicans and the more conservative, Tea Party wing of the party has now grown into a chasm – and one that threatens to engulf every major policy issue coming down the pike in Congress.  

This growing rift – most prevalent within the GOP-controlled House of Representatives – has been apparent in a number of major policy (and political) issues during this Congress, most notably during the kamikaze attack to defund Obamacare [1] that led to the 2013 government shutdown [2].

Just last week, Republican leadership in the House failed to obtain the necessary support for a $659 million border security bill [3] due to concerns from the right [4] that the legislation failed to address policy issues regarding the deportation of migrant children from Central America who have been arriving in growing numbers at the U.S. southern border in recent weeks. Ultimately, House leadership caved to demands by the more conservative wing of the party and passed legislation that would not only fund border security, but also roll back deportation-suspension policies previously put in place by the Obama Administration – though the effort was largely done in vain as the legislation is DOA in the Senate, as well as a prime presidential veto target. [5]

The Next Battle – Trade Policy

When it comes to major public policy issues that carry trillion dollar economic impacts like Obamacare and immigration reform, inter-party ideological rifts are somewhat to be expected. Interestingly, however, battle lines are again being drawn over the reauthorization of a largely unknown, but mostly successful, federal program that aids American businesses with foreign trade transactions. 

The Export-Import Bank, or “Ex-Im” as its commonly called, is the “official export credit agency of the United States.” Its self-proclaimed mission is to “assist in financing the export of U.S. goods and services to international markets.”  And if recent performance is any indication, it’s fulfilling that mission across the board.

For fiscal year 2013, Ex-Im authorized “a total of $27.3 billion to support $37.4 billion of U.S. exports worldwide,” aiding businesses both large and small in their efforts to increase international trade by selling more American products overseas. In some cases Ex-Im provides loans and other financing options to American businesses that can’t receive the capital they need for an international transaction from a traditional commercial lender. For others, Ex-Im simply helps guarantee existing loans or lines of credit that the businesses already have, by offering credit insurance policies that provide coverage for the commercial and political risks associated with foreign markets.

And while Ex-Im touts numerous jobs and economic impact statistics [6] connected with its work, one of the most compelling arguments for its existence is the agency’s incredibly low default rate [7], which led to a substantial net gain from operations of more than $1 billion for U.S. taxpayers in 2013, and more than $2 billion over the past 5 years.   

The Pushback

Despite its success, Ex-Im is not free from controversy. In fact, opposition to the reauthorization of Ex-Im’s charter, which expires at the end of September, has become a rallying cry for conservative interest groups and political organizations including the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, and Americans for Prosperity, who view the agency as nothing more than a monkey wrench in the gears of the free market.

Opponents of Ex-Im’s reauthorization tend to gravitate towards a handful of key arguments, namely that in their view the bank unfairly positions large and politically connected corporations over midsize and small businesses, and puts billions of taxpayer dollars unnecessarily at risk.

They also take exception to the agency’s financial return to taxpayers, claiming that when “using a fair-value accounting analysis,” the agency “is actually losing $200 million a year.” The basis for that assertion finds its home in a 2010 study published by Deborah Lucas, a professor of finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – though it appears that the $200 million figure wasn’t actually calculated by Dr. Lucas, but by others using her concepts, and little has been shared about how they actually arrived at that number.

On that same front, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently examined these competing accounting measures in order to forecast Ex-Im’s potential return to taxpayers. Under current, accepted accounting methods established by the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990, the CBO projected that Ex-Im would generate a $14 billion savings for taxpayers over the next 10 years. Yet under the fair-value accounting method, which uses estimates of the market value of the federal government’s obligations, it found that Ex-Im could cost taxpayers $2 billion over that same time period. The fair-value method, however, relies a great deal more on assumptions and estimates, and some economists have noted that when applied to Ex-Im the results can be “convoluted” and “at best judgmental and speculative.” [8]

Real World Impact

Differing cost estimates and financial projections aside, what can’t be disputed is that Ex-Im does have a positive impact on many of the businesses that utilize it, and subsequently our economy as a whole.

On a recent flight to Washington D.C., I had the pleasure of sitting next to Randy Barsalou, the owner of one such business – BCH Trading Co. of Hot Springs – who was, incidentally, headed to our nation’s capital to participate in a roundtable discussion on the importance of reauthorizing Ex-Im. For him, Ex-Im serves a critical function, primarily by guaranteeing the line of credit with his existing commercial lender so he has the working capital to sell lumber products to customers in Northern Africa, the Middle East, Western Europe, and China. Because of the assistance that Ex-Im provides [9], this Arkansas small business with a workforce of fewer than 10 can effectively access foreign markets, sell American lumber products abroad, and ultimately support roughly 60-70 jobs through its supply chain.

And the good news is that Barsalou is not alone.  According to the agency, in FY 2013, “nearly 90 percent of Ex-Im Bank's transactions—a record-high 3,413—were for American small businesses.” There are countless other stories of small business owners just like Barsalou who have seen the access to foreign markets that Ex-Im’s provides lead to economic expansion, business growth, and job creation all across the country.

A Global Market

But for some, the success that businesses of all sizes are experiencing by taking advantage of Ex-Im’s services doesn’t justify what they view as fundamental government interference in the free-market. As a free-market supporter myself, I’m sympathetic to that view.  But what those critics seem to be missing is that the “market” in this specific case is not one that we exclusively control. It’s a global one – and it’s far from “free.”   

Countries all over the world are using Export Credit Agencies (ECAs) of their own to best position their businesses on the global stage. According to information compiled by the National Association of Manufacturers, “most developed countries and many developing countries have official ECAs, with more than 60 operating worldwide.”

Make no mistake about it, just because the United States decides to get out of the game doesn’t mean our global competitors will.   If we decide to put this important tool back in the toolbox, it will only be to the detriment of our own businesses and our own economy. So here’s to hoping the growing rift in the House GOP can be healed – at least temporarily on this issue – for the sake of our collective economic prosperity. 

_________ 

[1] Just a reminder, kamikaze pilots don’t win in the end …

[2] Led by right-wing superstar Sen. Ted Cruz and his band of merry men.

[3] Yet another embarrassing toe stub.

[4] Score another point for Cruz & Co. … sort of.

[5] Meaning that despite widespread agreement on its importance, virtually nothing will change as it relates to the inadequate security of our southern border, and funding for desperately needed border control agents, technology upgrades and other security needs will just have to wait.

[6] More here

[7] "Since 1934, the Ex-Im Bank’s loan-loss rate has remained below 2 percent." (PDF) 

[8] More here

[9] For which it’s important to note that the company pays fees to the agency.

(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His opinion column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)