Members of Congress rarely bypass their own committee processes. When they do, it’s a sign of widespread dissatisfaction within the ranks, obstinate leadership or both.
So it was no small event this month when a majority of members in the House of Representatives signed a petition to force a floor vote on reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Forty-two Republicans joined with most Democrats to reach the 218 signatures needed to pull the bill from the House Financial Services Committee.
How rarely is the discharge process used? Less than a handful of times in the past 30 years. The last instance took place in 2002, when the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (more famously known as the McCain-Feingold bill) was pulled from committee and moved to a vote on the Senate floor. It passed, 60-40.
Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
Whether the Ex-Im Bank is reauthorized in time to keep its doors open remains to be seen, as there are significant forces in Congress and beyond that would like the 80-year-old bank to go away.
At the same time, the debate has become a symbol of larger schisms within Congress — Speaker John Boehner’s resignation among them — and an example of how individual members deserve the right to change their minds on specific issues, especially when confronted with new information.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, the first-term Republican from Wisconsin, is a prominent example. Like many in his party, Johnson was initially opposed to reauthorizing the bank. As amended legislation came forward, Johnson changed his initial “no” vote to support for keeping the bank alive on three occasions.
Why the change? Johnson believed the amended legislation would make the Ex-Im Bank more responsive, accountable and likely to lend money to small businesses, in addition to increasing loss reserve requirements.
In doing so, Johnson probably angered some conservatives who believe the Ex-Im Bank is an example of crony capitalism. For more pragmatic members of Congress, however, it’s increasingly hard to ignore the economic turmoil already set loose by the deadlock over the bank.
The Ex-Im Bank is a little-known federal agency that provides billions of dollars annually in loan guarantees and other financial support for U.S. exports. The Congressional Research Service reports the bank had a total budget of $90 million in 2013 (the entire federal budget was about $3.5 trillion) and it costs taxpayers nothing to operate. The cost of running the bank is paid by fees and interest charged to its private customers. In fact, the bank returned $675 million to federal taxpayers in 2014.
Beginning July 1, the bank was compelled to turn away new business. That has riled business and labor groups alike and struck bank defenders as unilateral disarmament in a global economy. If the bank fails, they warn, U.S. companies will lose ground to foreign companies backed by their own export credit agencies.
In Wisconsin, that decision has hit home with the announcement by General Electric Co. that it will shutter its engine plant in Waukesha, shifting 350 jobs to Canada. The company cited the end of the Ex-Im Bank as the reason for the closure, as it did with four other U.S. plants.
General Electric is only one example of the Ex-Im Bank’s role in Wisconsin. The Ex-Im Coalition says the bank supports $4.2 billion in export sales in Wisconsin, 203 companies and more than 27,000 jobs. Other examples cited by the coalition include the Oilgear Co., Scientific Protein Laboratories and the Manitowoc Co.
So far in 2015, 69 Wisconsin exporters have received financing help from the bank — and 53 of them meet the federal definition of being small businesses. The total value of exports related to those deals was about $246 million. Of course, since July 1 the number of new loans has been zero.
Nationally, the bank says it provided $20.5 billion in financial support for goods manufactured in the United States in 2014.
Exports are essential to most Wisconsin businesses, from manufacturers to food processors, and from biomedical companies to chemical suppliers. At a time when a strong U.S. dollar is already crimping exports, the state doesn’t need the added burden of congressional inaction on the Ex-Im Bank.