Senate Holds the Cards on Ex-Im as Ideology Swirls in House

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). image via flickr

A who’s who of the House of Representatives came forward to debate the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank on Tuesday. But despite the lopsided 313-118 vote in favor of the bank, the debate seemed most important for members to state their ideological cases for and against it.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a fiery opponent of Ex-Im, all but conceded defeat.

“I’m gratified and amazed that the charter has remained expired for four months. I never really thought I could achieve that,” he said after Tuesday’s vote. “I think a lot of members on the Republican side have now taken a second look and asked, ‘Do we want to support free enterprise interest? Do we want to support corporate welfare?’ I’m hopeful that, versus past practice, that more Republicans will let their voice be known.”

A majority of Republicans did let their voices be known in favor of the bank — 127 of them voted to reauthorize it.

All this verbiage occurred even though the House vote will have little impact on the actual reauthorization of the Export Import bank, which provides export loan guarantees to U.S. companies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly said that he will not consider Ex-Im reauthorization as a standalone measure. Ex-Im’s fate stands squarely in the hands of the highway bill conference committee.

Ex-Im charter renewal is already a part of a Senate transportation bill that passed this summer. A different highway bill will be considered in the House next week. The forthcoming conference committee will give proponents their best chance at finalizing reauthorization. All the conferees have to do is accept the Senate position on Ex-Im.

That means that the Ex-Im reauthorization plan brought about by the House Ex-Im supporters’ subversion of GOP leaders, while virtually identical to the Senate plan, will never receive Senate consideration.

But that didn’t stop the talking. GOP leaders made clear that the House vote came about without their support. The rarely-used discharge petition is intended to give rank-and-file members a voice when they outnumber the leaders.

Presumptive future House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came to the floor to decry the bank as “crony capitalism.” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) listed examples of criminal wrongdoing at the bank before asking, “When does the corruption become too bad? When is it that too many people take bribes? How many taxpayer loans must be issued in fraud?”

“Crony capitalism is a threat to our free enterprise system,” echoed Hensarling, who has led the charge against the Ex-Im Bank. He, along with other conservative members of the committee, decried the bank as a tool of large corporations like Boeing Co. and General Electric Co.

Supporters took the rhetoric in stride. “I like to allow people who have an opinion that is antithetical to mine to express their opinions,” said Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) in an interview. He also voted yes, along with 185 of his Democratic colleagues.

Parliamentary considerations, like whether the House vote actually mattered, seemed far from the minds of those debating the merits of the bank on the House floor. The debate over Ex-Im has taken on outsize importance in Congress, with numerous outside trade groups and think tanks weighing in repeatedly on both sides of the issue. The arch-conservative Heritage Foundation treated the vote on Ex-Im as a “key vote” in which opponents would be given points and support from their followers. The National Association of Manufacturers, however, was lobbying heavily for members to vote for Ex-Im reauthorization.

Proponents of the bank lashed out at conservatives who had blocked the agency’s reauthorization in June, accusing them of putting an ideological agenda ahead of job creation and economic growth.

“We’ve had some ‘immaculate awareness’ that this is preening to the welfare state,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “This rhetoric I hear now, that it’s selling out to the welfare state. It’s a little hard for me to believe.” He cited past strong Republican support for the bank.

Some went even further, painting the efforts of bank opponents as a sinister utopian-capitalist plot. “I don’t live inside the fantasy plot of an Ayn Rand novel,” agreed Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), citing the libertarian pro-capitalist author who is a hero to many conservatives.

“You have two types of people — practical people who want to support American businesses, and slaves to ideology,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.), a supporter of the bank.

Not so, said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.). “This is about doing the bidding of the corporations who have a very large lobbying presence in Washington DC.”

The Senate will have those arguments in mind when it considers its highway legislation.

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