Congress will barely be in session in the 10 weeks before Election Day, and it will do very little legislating. One of the issues it does have to resolve, though, is what to do with the Export-Import Bank.
Ex-Im is a federal agency that subsidizes U.S. exporters, giving taxpayer-backed financing to foreign companies and governments. Conservatives are giving this agency a hard time, and House leaders show no desire to take up a bill reauthorizing Ex-Im.
But government-shutdown politics complicates things.
Here's the lay of the land:
Democrats, for all their populist rhetoric and barbs at Big Business, are nearly unanimous in favoring Ex-Im. More than enough Republicans support renewal to give Ex-Im a majority in the House, if a renewal bill ever came to the floor. But that’s a big "if."
Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss this summer helped shape the current situation. Cantor, the House GOP’s liaison to Wall Street and one of the party’s biggest fundraisers from corporate America, was a big Ex-Im backer.
It was Cantor who cut the deal with Democrats to bring Ex-Im’s last renewal to the floor in 2012. Cantor again made it clear this year that he supported Ex-Im.
When Cantor lost to conservative college professor Dave Brat, Ex-Im’s path to renewal became rougher. (Shares of Ex-Im beneficiary Boeing Co. fell 3 percent the day after the primary.)
Brat had blasted Cantor for being too cozy with corporate welfare. Cantor’s heir, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, saw that. On "Fox News Sunday," five days after Cantor’s defeat, McCarthy said he thought Republicans should let Ex-Im expire, a reversal of his 2012 position. More importantly, McCarthy later made it clear he would not bring the bill to the floor unless it passed out of the House Committee on Financial Services.
That put the ball in the court of Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling — who firmly opposes Ex-Im, deriding it as “crony capitalism.”
“Today I call on every Republican in Congress to simply let Ex-Im expire,” Hensarling said in a May speech at the Heritage Foundation.
When a committee chairman doesn’t want a bill to pass out of his committee, the bill doesn’t pass out of committee. Combine Hensarling’s and McCarthy’s positions, and Ex-Im has no clear path to the House floor.
The Senate, on the other hand, is controlled by Democrats (who, once again, love Ex-Im’s corporate subsidies). Many Republicans in the upper chamber also support Ex-Im, although important senators including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell oppose the agency.
If the House does nothing, some opponents of Ex-Im fear the Senate will stick a five-year reauthorization of Ex-Im in the must-pass bill to keep the government funded — the so-called continuing resolution.
This would force Republicans to choose between passing the Senate’s Ex-Im language or getting blamed for a government shutdown (because Republicans always get blamed for government shutdowns).
Hensarling is considering an alternative to his earlier “do nothing” stance. One possibility is the House could pass a six-month extension of Ex-Im and revisit the issue next year. Republicans have a decent chance of taking over the Senate in November’s election, so a six-month extension would push the debate off to a point when the GOP hopes to be in control of Congress.
Still, there may not be enough votes to kill Ex-Im. Pushing the debate back six months would give Republicans in the House and Senate an opportunity to introduce real reforms to trim Ex-Im’s sails. Past Congresses have passed paper-thin reforms, but in a Congress where McConnell, McCarthy, and Hensarling could control traffic, the choice would be between killing Ex-Im or seriously slashing it.
Besides doing nothing or extending Ex-Im into next year, a third option is being tossed about the Hill. Roll Call’s Emma Dumain reported early this month that Republicans were considering an Ex-Im extension that “would be sunset before the end of the year.” In other words, they would consider taking up Ex-Im in the lame duck session.
This wouldn’t strengthen the Republicans’ hand, as Democrats would still hold 55 Senate seats. All it would do is postpone the vote until after the GOP leadership elections — that is, after McCarthy and Boehner no longer feel pressure from the likes of Hensarling to actually fight against corporate welfare.
Nobody ever said killing corporate welfare would be easy.Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.