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Juan Williams: Ex-Im issue is a melodrama

Greg Nash

The best political soap opera of the summer on Capitol Hill is the HBO-worthy drama over the Export-Import Bank.

In Act One, incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) goes on “Fox News Sunday” to tell the Tea Party faithful that he has had a change of heart and will oppose reauthorizing and funding the bank.

McCarthy got the big job only after Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a major supporter of the bank, suffered a stunning primary defeat. The loss was attributed partly to his indifference to Tea Party complaints about “crony capitalism.”

McCarthy was a supporter of the bank when it was last reauthorized. Among non-Tea Party Republicans, support for the bank remains strong. They argue, in the words of Illinois’ Rep. Randy Hultgren, “an outright elimination [of the bank] leaves U.S. jobs in peril.”

But McCarthy, needing to polish his hard right credentials for Tea Party activists, does an about-face for the base.

Activists in Club for Growth and Heritage Action as well as Americans for Prosperity — a group backed by the Koch brothers, whose companies have benefitted from the bank — promise that pillorying the bank will stir the base in advance of the midterm elections.

Republicans privately insist that big business may squeal for a few weeks but will continue writing checks for GOP candidates over high-tax, pro-regulation Democrats.

The stage for this drama is the House Financial Services Committee.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) opened hearings on the bank with a stirring oration. In full fury, he said tax dollars from cops, teachers and small business owners pass through the bank and end up in China and “countries with a demonstrated history of atrocious human rights abuses like the Congo and the Sudan.”

The winners, he said, are “some of the largest, richest, most politically-connected corporations in the world — like Boeing, General Electric, Bechtel and Caterpillar.”

In Act Two, Democrats perk up at the prospect of pocketing some of the big money donations that usually flow to the GOP from big business. With the National Association of Manufacturers disgusted with the Tea Party’s lack of support for immigration reform, tax reform, the Highway Trust Fund and now the bank, the Democrats do their own flip. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her troops back the “Protect American Jobs and Export Act.”

This about-face by Democrats requires pulling away from populist anger over the 2008 bailouts of “too big to fail” firms on Wall Street. Democrats go silent on corporations hiding profits overseas.

Democrats have a long history of questioning the flow of tax dollars going to the bank. President Obama supports the reauthorization now. But when he was running for the White House in 2008, he described the bank as “little more than a fund for corporate welfare.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), speaking at Senate confirmation hearings for the Export-Import Bank’s president in 2013, worried that financing for overseas trade deals loosens the rules governing financial services.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), had excoriated the bank for loans to big companies in his days as congressman. “You are going to tell me with a straight face that General Electric … cannot get loans anyplace else but from the taxpayers and the workers of America, many of whom have lost their jobs from General Electric?”

But Democrats are biting their tongues on income inequality in favor of a show of concern over possible job losses if the bank is unable to meet the needs of huge corporations.

Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), from the home of Boeing, the bank’s biggest beneficiary, accused GOP foes of reauthorization of “playing with fire.” He pointed out that China and Germany offer financial backing to help their big companies increase their export business. If the U.S. government ceased to do the same, Heck said, it would be damning America to an economic future that is “worse off.”

Now Act Three is opening. The bank’s federal authorization expires Sept. 30.

If McCarthy and Hensarling continue playing to the Tea Party extremists, it could lead to a showdown with the Senate over Congress’s funding package for the federal government. Without a deal, the nation goes back to the future for a 2013-style government shutdown.

That Tea Party tantrum — pursued in the face of horrified opposition from the business community — led to a credit rating downgrade and is estimated to have cost taxpayers $24 billion.

Tea Party opposition to immigration reform has similarly cost taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that the immigration bill passed by the Senate but blocked by the House would have over the next 20 years reduced the deficit by $900 billion.

As with so much of Tea Party obstruction and theatrics, this soap opera is looking more like a tragedy for taxpayers, business and the economy.

Juan Williams is an author and 
political analyst for Fox News Channel.