Of all the purposes for which you might put U.S. taxpayer dollars at risk, helping wealthy petro-states borrow millions to buy Boeing jets would not rank among the most urgent.
Yet that is what the Export-Import Bank does: In fiscal 2013, Ex-Im backed $8.3 billion in aircraft and related sales, including a $117.5 million loan guarantee to support Boeing 737 purchases by Dubai — a typical transaction for an agency that has, over the years, earned the sobriquet “Bank of Boeing,” though it does also support Caterpillar and General Electric, among others.
Now Ex-Im suddenly faces extinction: Its charter expires Sept. 30, and the agency’s best friend in the House Republican leadership, former majority leader Eric Cantor (Va.), who shepherded a bipartisan reauthorization bill in 2012, lost his GOP primary this month. Ex-Im must contend instead with free-market Republicans such as Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), chairman of the committee that oversees Ex-Im, and a new majority leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has abandoned his past support for Ex-Im in deference to the tea party.
Say what you want about the tea party, its critique of Ex-Im Bank as “crony capitalism” has a lot going for it; President Obama himself singled out Ex-Im as an example of “corporate welfare” when he was running for president in 2008 — although his administration, and most congressional Democrats, support it now.
Ex-Im defenders from the International Association of Machinists union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are bombarding Congress and the media with the message that Ex-Im is a realistic instrument of national policy, without which Boeing and other U.S. firms could not compete against heavily subsidized European companies, such as Airbus.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs depend on these exports, the argument goes, and Ex-Im made $1 billion last year from fees for loan guarantees and the like, so the U.S. economy gets all those benefits and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.
Has Ex-Im finally discovered the elusive free lunch? Suppose it’s true, as the bank reports, that 205,000 U.S. workers owed their employment to Ex-Im-supported exports in fiscal 2013. This is not evidence of job creation; it’s evidence of governmentally-assisted job allocation. Resources that Ex-Im helped steer to Boeing, et al., might have created the same number of jobs, or more, at other firms.
Indeed, the first crack in a formerly united front of business support for Ex-Im appeared when Delta Airlines complained — plausibly — that Ex-Im-backed sales of Boeing jets to state-owned competitors abroad put Delta and its workers at a competitive disadvantage.
To fight the “bank of Boeing” stigma, Congress has required Ex-Im to allocate more of its portfolio (up to $140 billion under current law) to small business and “green” exports. No doubt these quotas spread Ex-Im largesse among more businesses — and congressional districts — thus broadening its political base.
Economically, though, nothing changes. Government is still picking winners and losers; it’s just picking more of them, in more markets, with more opportunities for bureaucratic decision-making, lobbying and, now and then, corruption — like the alleged bribery of an Ex-Im official by a construction-equipment exporter that the Ex-Im inspector general is investigating.
The no-cost-to-the-taxpayer argument is overblown, too. If Ex-Im backs loans that the private sector would not otherwise make, then, by definition, its portfolio is risky. Yet under existing law the federal budget accounts for Ex-Im’s loans as if they were as safe as Treasury debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a more accurate measure known as “fair value accounting,” which factors in foreseeable business cycle downturns, would show that Ex-Im adds $2 billion to the deficit over the next decade, rather than reducing it by $14 billion, as currently claimed.
The strongest argument for Ex-Im is that the United States can’t unilaterally disarm in a world where both buyers and sellers expect government intervention — not only from Europe, but also China and Japan — in the market for big-ticket items such as planes, nuclear reactors and locomotives.
It is an undeniably realistic contention, if not a principled one — all the more reason it might yet prevail. The Senate leans pro-Ex-Im. Forty-one House Republicans have signed a letter promising to back a bill if GOP leaders bring it to the floor, and most House Democrats are already on board.
Even if abolition is impossible, Ex-Im’s critics might have leverage to win real reforms, starting with fair-value risk accounting in the budget and an end to quotas for small business and green energy.
Ultimately, the best hope may be to negotiate tougher international rules against export subsidies, so every country’s companies can compete on their merits — and no country’s taxpayers are on the hook.
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