The Fight Against the Ex-Im Bank Is Not Going Well

Main St. Agenda by from The Weekly Standard, February 10, 2015

House conservatives complained loudly about the Export-Import Bank during last year’s midterm campaign. The hope was, with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, that conservatives could find the will to kill the program — which, by the way, should be relatively easy. If Congress does nothing, the Ex-Im’s charter will expire.

So, how is it going?

Per the Hill, not well:

The president of the nation’s largest manufacturing trade group says a vote against reauthorizing the Export Import Bank is a vote to send U.S. jobs overseas.

Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), will re-launch NAM’s 2015 battle against the bank’s Tea Party critics in Minneapolis on Wednesday. …

Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) introduced legislation last month along with 47 Republican co-sponsors that would reauthorize the bank for five years. House Democrats, led by Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.), Gwen Moore (Wis.) and Denny Heck (Wash.), have plans to introduce a Democratic version of the bill.

Conservatives are right to complain about the Export-Import Bank. It’s by-and-large a payoff to Boeing. And even if you think the federal government should be in the business of subsidizing a corporation with a market capitalization of about $100 billion, Ex-Im is a terribly inefficient way to go about doing so.

But Boeing donates a lot of money to political campaigns, and spends even more on lobbying members of Congress. And not out of the kindness of its own heart — this is a way to protect its lucrative benefit streams. And, as we can see, Boeing is not alone in this fight. The fact that the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) is pushing hard to renew Ex-Im is not a good sign for reformers, because NAM has long-standing ties to the Republican party.

My new book on political corruption is being released today. I planned originally to have a lengthy section on Ex-Im, but space constraints were such that I had to leave it on the cutting room floor (unfortunately, I came to this conclusion after I bought the ridiculously expensive, yet authoritative history on Ex-Im!). Still, Ex-Im is a prime example of corporate welfare that does little for the country at large. I do not think it is an example of corruption by way of extortion, bribery, kickbacks, etc. Even so, it is an example of the government using public dollars to favor private factions, with little or no benefit for the collective good.

What makes Ex-Im especially noteworthy is how narrowly its benefits are distributed. So, in theory, that should make it more vulnerable. A federal program that ensnares more factions is more likely to resist reform, as various interest groups can coordinate their defense. Ex-Im’s client list is quite narrow, and yet Congress looks set to keep it in place.

That just goes to show how entrenched corruption is in the body politic. It reminds me of one of the most ridiculous examples of corruption I came across, the waste in the Government Printing Office (GPO). Normally, I roll my eyes when people quote themselves, so I hope you will forgive the indulgence. The following is taken from Chapter 10 of my book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption:

The Grace Commission (a good-government group formed by the Ronald Reagan Administration in the early 1980s) notes that the GPO, which is overseen by an insignificant congressional body called the Joint Committee on Printing, had twenty-seven regional bookstores that sold government documents. In 1981 the GPO wanted to close or consolidate many of these offices, which were not heavily trafficked, but it had to back down when employees of the stores complained to the Joint Committee on Printing. Again, small potatoes, but in a way that makes it all the more significant; Congress dragged its heels to reform something because it would affect just a handful of people.

Ex-Im is not as narrowly tailored as a handful of GPO bookstores, but the point still basically holds. Even when good government reforms are a no-brainer for the public interest, Congress still resists. That is why corruption is such a big problem — and why Ex-Im is so illustrative.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at the Weekly Standard. He is the author of the new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption.

© 2015 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.