Business shifts strategy on Ex-Im

Business groups are working overtime to make Main Street the face of the Export-Import Bank. 

Facing a concerted effort by conservative groups and Tea Party Republicans to kill off the bank, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and other K Street heavyweights are asking small-town businesses to bring up the importance of the bank personally with their members of Congress.

The effort will intensify over the July 4 recess, when trade association members will have a chance to raise the Ex-Im issue with lawmakers in their home districts.

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Chamber of Commerce officials say they’re asking all of the 865 businesses that signed on to a letter this week urging Congress to extend the bank’s charter to reach out to lawmakers while they are home.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck effort inside and outside the beltway,” Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told The Hill.

One veteran Republican strategist, who asked not to be named because of how contentious the issue has become, said the battle has shifted from the “congressional corridors of Washington to Main Street USA.”

“We are seeing a new ironic trend that I expect to see continue as other contentious business-related issues come up — that is, the business community will need more than lobbyists in Washington,” the strategist said. “They need activists on Main Street who bombard their specific members of Congress.”

Ex-Im is relatively unknown in small communities across the country, and lobbying on the bank has traditionally been the providence of K Street insiders.

Supporters say that won’t work while Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and other opponents use conservative listservs and online campaigns to promote their message that the bank is a form of crony capitalism funneling taxpayer dollars to corporate titans such as Boeing and Caterpillar.

"A change in rhetoric doesn’t change the bank’s activities, which are overwhelmingly tilted toward subsidizing the activity of large businesses," said Dan Holler, Heritage Action's communications director.

Tony Fratto, managing director of Hamilton Place Strategies, said Ex-Im supporters are organizing meetings with lawmakers during the recess.

“As members begin to understand the impact of Ex-Im Bank financing on businesses of all sizes — and their suppliers — in each of their districts, reauthorizing the Bank should be a no-brainer,” said Fratto, a former official in President George W. Bush's administration.

That shift began to emerge this week at a Wednesday hearing where lawmakers said they have been hearing from their constituents who are worried about the bank’s survival and the jobs it supports. 

Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), who opposed Ex-Im in 2012, signaled during the hearing he would be open to supporting the bank with some changes to how it operates. 

"This is about, for me, the jobs in my district," Fincher said. 

“I’m going to have a hard time going back home to my district and telling my people, my folks, that the only thing I've done is kill jobs for my district,” he said. “So, let's try to work this out. I think we can.”

Other Republican lawmakers expressed similar concerns about how closing the bank would hurt jobs back home, evidence that the business outreach may be working. 

While Wenk acknowledged there were some negative aspects during the hearing, he said it is clear that nearly all House Democrats are united for reauthorization and there are at least a handful of Republicans on the committee willing to back a bill that includes some changes. 

Ex-Im supporters say they've spent the bulk of their Capitol Hill meetings explaining to lawmakers how small businesses in districts use the bank's services, which has shifted the focus to jobs instead of "crony capitalism" claims.

In one meeting, a lawmaker went from opposed to supportive after seeing the actual jobs numbers in their district. 

"Our story, we try to tell it from a personal standpoint," said David Ickert, CFO of Texas-based aircraft manufacturer Air Tractor. "This is a very real issue. It's advertised sometimes as a Wall Street issue — but this is a Main Street issue."

Still, Ickert said that while he's met with staffers of Texas House Republican members, he's yet to hear a confirmation of support from their offices.

Earlier this week, 41 Republicans sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) urging the bank's reauthorization.

NAM assisted with that letter and said that there is substantial Republican support beyond those who signed on, a source familiar with the efforts told The Hill.

Francis Creighton, head of government affairs at The Financial Services Roundtable (FSR), which supports Ex-Im, expects that any company relying on the bank will seek discussions with lawmakers during those congressional breaks. 

FSR itself will continue the process of meeting with lawmakers to consider their concerns or discuss any possible reforms. 

Creighton said that the business community outreach has been broader and deeper than in 2012, when the bank faced similar shut-down pressures from the more conservative faction of the Republican Party. 

In fact, Wenk said their efforts are already pushing beyond July 4 and into the August recess.

Lawmakers weighing where they stand acknowledge there is plenty of pressure to back the bank.

“Republicans that have routinely reauthorized Ex-Im are now in the awkward position of telling corporate supporters why this time around is different,” griped one senior staffer of a Republican House member who hasn't announced a position on the issue. "[But] any public wavering on the issue is going to result in third-party groups and talk radio ginning up hometown constituents into a frenzy.”

Still, the staffer conceded that the shift among business groups has produced a strategy aimed at “reckoning with a dissatisfied voter base that hates taxes, hates regulations, but also hates big business.”

“An appeal from pro Ex-Im-ers based on benefits to small businesses is the only thing that can sway hearts and minds.”