Business groups plunge into new Ex-Im struggle

Getty Images

Business groups are ramping up the pressure on the Senate to swiftly confirm a nominee to the Export-Import Bank so that the agency can begin approving transactions over $10 million.

The Senate has been in a holding pattern for nearly a year on the vacancies at the bank, which saw its charter renewed through September 2019 last year after a bitter battle that split congressional Republicans.

Fresh off their victory in the charter fight, industry advocates are pushing hard to fill the empty slots on the Ex-Im board. Without action, they warn, American exporters will soon struggle to secure the financing they need.

President Obama this week nominated John Mark McWatters, a Republican, to fill one of three vacancies on the five-member Ex-Im board of directors.

Bill Reinsch, the head of the National Foreign Trade Council, said business groups plan to spring into action.

“We’ll be up there on this now that there is a nominee,” Reinsch said of Capitol Hill.

But Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who will be in charge of vetting McWatters, appears to be in no hurry to move on the nomination.

Asked about McWatters this week, the senator said he was focusing on his reelection race.

Shelby is facing a primary in Alabama on March 1, though he does not appear to have a serious challenger.

Business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers say returning Ex-Im to full strength soon is critical. The bank was prevented from approving any new transactions for the second half of 2015 after its charter expired and is now limited in how much financing it can provide.

“Manufacturers recognize the Ex-Im Bank’s board of directors needs a quorum to act on transactions and policy changes that require board approval, and we welcome the administration’s decision to move forward with the nomination process,” said Linda Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs for the National Association of Manufacturers.  

“We urge the Senate to take action quickly on this nomination and help ensure the Ex-Im Bank, a critical trading tool for manufacturers of all sizes, is able to fulfill its mission of supporting U.S. job growth through exports.”

Tea Party conservatives have railed against Ex-Im, calling it a form of crony capitalism that distorts the marketplace and primarily benefits massive corporations such as Boeing.

While the bank has support in both parties, as evidenced by the 313-118 House vote that renewed its charter in October, election-year pressures might make some Senate Republicans wary of supporting an Ex-Im nominee.

The terms of two Ex-Im directors expired during the charter fight last year. Without a quorum, the bank can’t approve loans over $10 million. 

While that amount affects larger companies such as Boeing and Caterpillar, both leaders in the lobbying effort to keep Ex-Im active, the cap also affects a growing number of smaller firms that are at risk of losing business, advocates say.

Peter Darley said his Illinois-based company, W.S. Darley and Co., is in need of financing despite being a small business. The company ships fire trucks to more than 100 countries, and Darley said he has deals in the pipeline exceeding that $10 million threshold that would need approval of the board. 

“Maybe we’re going to have to do the same type of push we did before because if it’s going to continue to stall, it will affect business,” he said. 

“Customers only wait so long.”

Without the needed quorum, Darley said, his firm and his suppliers would lose business to companies in other countries. 

Ted Jones, director of supplier programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said Ex-Im financing is also crucial to U.S. nuclear exporters competing on a global scale. 

Jones said that loans for his group’s members easily exceed $10 million.

“Ours go into the billions of dollars, and we do need to have a working bank ready — something we want to see Congress take up as soon as possible,” Jones said. 

“That’s why it’s important and we strongly support” Congress moving forward on the confirmation process. 

Dempsey said the Ex-Im Bank’s bipartisan board also is instrumental in its day-to-day operations, from managing the 81-year-old institution to approving transactions. 

“Stable, dynamic leadership will ensure the bank maintains its track record of continuous improvements, fiscal responsibility and effective export promotion,” she said. 

McWatters is a Republican with strong Texas ties, potentially easing the way for his confirmation. He at one time worked for Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who led the charge against renewing the Ex-Im bank last year.

McWatters also is a member of the National Credit Union Administration’s board and was a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. He also served on the Troubled Asset Relief Program Congressional Oversight Panel.

Obama withdrew his nomination of Democrat Patricia Loui-Schmicker to serve another term on the board. Her nomination had been pending since March and had never been considered. 

Gordon Johndroe, vice president of Boeing’s government operations communications, pressed for the Senate to move on McWatters’s nomination.

Boeing supports the “White House decision to move this process forward and urge the Senate to take action soon so that the bank board has a quorum and can once again help U.S. manufacturers and millions of American workers compete in a global economy,” Johndroe said.