Obama, Bill Clinton use Africa panel to make their pitch to save the Ex-Im Bank

This week’s historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which has drawn nearly 50 African heads of state and some 200 top U.S. and African business leaders to Washington, wasn’t supposed to be about partisan politics.

But at the summit’s headline event, a business forum on Tuesday, President Obama and Bill Clinton brought up the summer’s political hot potato anyway.

In afternoon remarks detailing a series of initiatives designed to strengthen ties between U.S. and African companies, Obama made a pitch to Congress to keep the embattled U.S. Export-Import Bank alive.

“I would be remiss if I did not add that House Republicans can help by reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank,” Obama said. “That is the right thing to do.”

For the past few months, the Obama administration and many large U.S. companies have been urging Congress to renew the embattled 80-year-old federal credit agency before its charter expires at the end of September. While some Republicans and conservative groups say the bank should be allowed to die, claiming that it doles out corporate welfare and engages in crony capitalism, the bank’s supporters say it provides essential financing to foreign buyers to boost U.S. business abroad.

Clinton has been among the most vocal of the bank’s supporters, and while moderating a panel discussion among chief executives Tuesday morning he raised the talking point.

“We don’t want to get in the middle of Washington’s political wars, but how important do you think it is for the future prospects of getting more financing in Africa for American businesses to renew the Export-Import Bank?” the former president asked panelist Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric.

Immelt, whose company has been a vocal supporter of the bank, made the most of Clinton’s question.

“There’s a lot of things to be critical about big businesses, and there’s a lot of things that don’t work in government, but exporting is not one of them and the Ex-Im Bank is not one of them,” Immelt said. “And the fact that we have to sit here and argue for it I think is just wrong.”

Immelt’s response set the stage for Clinton and Aliko Dangote, the chief executive of the Nigeria-based industrial conglomerate Dangote Group, to make their own impassioned pitches for the embattled bank’s reauthorization. And with none of the other chief executives on the panel voicing any criticism of the bank, the conversation took on a one-sided tone.

“We’re all having a vigorous agreement on this,” Clinton quipped.

When asked for comment on the panelists’ conversation, a spokesperson for Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who has been among the bank’s most vocal critics, pointed to a statement Hensarling issued on Friday. Hensarling referred to Obama’s push to renew the bank’s charter as an “international arms race to the bottom funded with taxpayer subsidies for his friends at Fortune 500 companies.”

Large U.S. companies like GE, which benefit from the bulk of the bank’s financial support, have been among the most organized advocates of the agency.

But at Tuesday’s panel, Dangote brought a relatively new voice to the debate, saying he thinks the closure of the bank would present “a bit of an issue” for equipment transactions between U.S. and African companies.

If the Ex-Im Bank is allowed to expire, it will affect relatively few U.S. businesses with interests in Africa. Ex-Im-backed exports represented 3 percent of all exports of U.S. merchandise exported to the region in the 2013 fiscal year, according to the bank’s 2013 annual report.

In total, the Ex-Im Bank issued $604 million in financing to support a record 188 transactions involving U.S. exports to sub-Saharan Africa in the 2013 fiscal year, the report said.

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