The Export-Import Bank, long a target of fiscal conservatives, is likely to survive the Trump administration, though its future size and scope remain open questions.
The official credit export agency of the United States has been hindered for over a year by board vacancies that prevent it from making loans of more than $10 million. It’s also confronted limited financing powers, amid long-standing criticism that it’s more corporate welfare than sound public policy.
Still, the Ex-Im Bank appears to have a safe path forward. Though its exact role remains unclear, administration officials say it has a seat at the policymaking table: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in video remarks to the agency’s annual conference last week, called it a component of the U.S. trade “toolbox.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a fiscal hawk who criticized the bank while serving in the House, affirmed in a CNBC interview posted Wednesday that it would “continue to exist.” But Trump “is interested in putting some people on [the staff] who are reformers,” Mulvaney added. White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom declined in an email Wednesday to offer any additional updates on the Ex-Im Bank.
And Trump himself voiced support for Ex-Im on Wednesday, reversing past criticisms. “It turns out that, first of all, lots of small companies are really helped, the vendor companies,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal. “But also, maybe more important, other countries give [assistance]. When other countries give it we lose a tremendous amount of business.”
GOP Reps. Chris Collins (N.Y.) and Mike Kelly (Pa.), supporters of the agency, provided names of potential nominees to Trump in February, Collins said at last week’s Ex-Im conference. Trump said Wednesday he is interested in staffing up the five-person board, which currently consists of two members: acting Chairman C.J. Hall and Scott Schloegel.
“The president looked to his right and to his left and said, ‘Can you get me some names? I’m all in,'” Collins said. “There was no hesitation whatsoever … Mike and I worked together. We submitted a group of names that afternoon to the president.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request to confirm Collins’ account of that conversation. A spokesman for Collins did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Kelly spokesman Tom Qualtere said he did not have access to the list of nominee recommendations.
Collins also expressed confidence that the Senate Banking Committee, which backlogged Export-Import Bank nominees under former Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), would advance new nominees under its new chairman, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). Crapo is “absolutely going to move it,” Collins said. Crapo spokeswoman Mandi Critchfield declined to comment Wednesday on the status of Ex-Im nominees.
Several factors play into how Trump handles Ex-Im, from his trade agenda to his record of engineering private-sector deals. “We’ve gotten a few signals,” said Diane Katz, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation and expert on Ex-Im, in an interview. Ex-Im was not slated for elimination under the president’s budget proposal, she said — but similar organizations were. “I don’t think it was an oversight that Ex-Im wasn’t in there.”
Conservatives such as Katz hope Trump will steer the bank away from what they see as “corporate welfare” or government interference in private markets.
“He’s not necessarily a typical or traditional conservative on economics and trade,” Katz said.
Nor is Ex-Im an issue that cleaves neatly to party lines. Republican feelings about the agency range from support to vehement criticism, making it difficult to peg where a GOP administration and Congress will fall.
Hall, the Export-Import Bank’s acting chairman, is optimistic that nominations will flow to the Senate in the “not too distant future,” he said in an interview last week. Based on a “logical read” of Trump’s agenda, “it seems to me as though Ex-Im’s mission is squarely in his sweet spot,” Hall said.
This story has been updated to include information from President Donald Trump’s recent Wall Street Journal interview.