The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the GOP is undermining America’s opportunity in Africa

There is something to be said for having your house in order before company arrives.

This week, numerous heads of state from Africa have descended on Washington, D.C., to attend the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Obama. The summit, the largest of its kind hosted by a U.S. president, is intended to signal to the United States and the rest of the world that the United States is committed to being a partner with African leaders to improve Africa’s future, and that Africa is indeed “open for business” for the American private sector. African leaders have been in talks with U.S. business leaders and investors interested in accessing African markets, which will help with Africa’s development. Just yesterday, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, in conjunction with General Electic, announced a five-year, $498.2 million investment in Ghana’s energy sector, the largest under Obama’s Power Africa initiative.

But while the summit has been touted as a display of equal partnership between the United States and African countries, these efforts could be undermined by the virulent partisan bickering that has enshrouded Washington lately.

Frankly, it’s quite embarrassing for the United States to host a record number of African heads of state and ministers to talk about increasing trade while Congress can’t get its act together enough to decide whether U.S. businesses large and small should get access to credit to operate in Africa. They can’t even get it together enough to confirm ambassadors to key countries in Africa while we entertain our African guests.

Because of maddening gridlock in the Senate, about a quarter of the world lacks a U.S. ambassador — more than 40 nations, including Sierra Leone, Lesotho and Zambia. The candidates are waiting on a Senate vote to confirm them. But Senate Republicans have been filibustering and refusing to contribute the votes necessary to confirm the appointees. Having ambassadors on the ground in countries is the essence of formal diplomatic relationships with these countries. How are we expecting to partner with African countries without ambassadors?

It’s not just a failure on the diplomacy side. Republican lawmakers are being accused of harming the United States’ global competitiveness over their objections to the Export-Import Bank. The Export-Import Bank is the primary agency charged with giving U.S. companies access to the credit they need to export goods to other countries. Both small and large business are supported. In its 80-year history, Ex-Im bank has supported more than $567 billion of U.S. exports abroad, mostly to other nations. The Ex-Im bank exposure in Africa is at a historic high of $6.6 billion, a record $5.8 billion of which are in sub-Saharan Africa.

But some in Congress want to defund the Ex-Im because of ideology. The bank’s financing is set to run out Sept. 30. Republican lawmakers and advocacy groups such as the Heritage Foundation maintain that the Ex-Im Bank amounts to “crony capitalism.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said that private lenders should be able to meet the needs of U.S. exporters, and the bank’s authority to help U.S. businesses should expire when Sept. 30 rolls around.

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said on the matter: “It’s an absolutely fundamental tool we need to help American businesses sell their goods around the world. 60 other countries have similar Ex-Im Banks. We don’t want to give up a financing tool. . . . This is really, really important. There are American jobs on the line, that’s what seems crazy to me.”

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), at a Millennium Challenge Corporation event marking the kickoff of the U.S.-Africa  Leaders Summit, said to me of the Ex-Im fiasco, “I can’t see why we would unilaterally disarm a decent shot at being able to compete with other countries in Africa.”

Such as China.

Investing in Africa should be a bipartisan endeavor. Republicans in Congress should face questions from African leaders on why there is no ambassador to their country or why congressional leaders want to make it harder for Americans and Africans to do business together by bringing Ex-Im to the brink. The partisan bickering directly affects the United States’ relationship with Africa and undermines the high-flying rhetoric of partnership and investment in Africa’s future. Maybe if the all lawmakers were in town during the Africa summit and not on recess, they might see the impacts of political obstinacy in person.