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Zombie Bank: Why Killing Ex-Im Doesn’t Mean It’s Dead

Congressional staffers stand below a television monitor during a House committee hearing Wednesday on the Export-Import Bank. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Congressional staffers stand below a television monitor during a House committee hearing Wednesday on the Export-Import Bank. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

With only hours to go before the Export-Import Bank’s charter expires for the first time in its 81-year history, lawmakers who support the agency are pointing fingers at the base of opposition — but not sounding the alarm bells of imminent catastrophe.  

Starting Wednesday, the bank won’t be able to extend new loans — but it will still be able to serve out existing contracts. Most members are confident the operation will get reauthorized, some way or another, in the weeks before the month-long August recess and before the funding lapse becomes a real problem. Nobody is quite sure just how they’ll pull it off, politically or practically.  

Politically, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other senior GOP lawmakers don’t want to buck the conservative faction leading the charge against reauthorization, which includes members of the leadership slate as well as influential Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.  

Boehner has said he won’t allow a House floor vote on reauthorization unless it goes through “regular order,” a prospect that is unlikely, given Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling’s steadfast opposition.  

In a compromise, Boehner has promised to let the House vote on any reauthorization language that can get passed by the Senate, at which point he’ll let his members have at it through an open-amendment process.  

The obvious legislative vehicle to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank is the extension of the Highway Trust Fund, due to go insolvent by July 31. Unlike with Ex-Im, failure of Congress to act on that front would have instant repercussions for crucial construction projects around the country.  

But the problem is nobody has any idea how to fix the Highway Trust Fund without making concessions on tax increases in lieu of finding a more palatable pay-for. It’s looking increasingly likely Congress will be pressured to pass another short-term extension to buy members more time to identify offsets through tax overhaul legislation — another very lofty legislative goal — but members on both sides of the aisle are growing frustrated with can-kicking and are threatening to withhold support for anything short of a longterm solution.  

And of course, there’s no telling whether the votes would exist to pass a highway bill with an Ex-Im Bank rider attached, particularly in the House where the base of opposition to the bank is strongest.  

Members who wanted to make statements on the Ex-Im Bank weren’t thinking that far ahead on Tuesday.  

House Democrats, led by Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, held a conference call to rail against Republican leaders for caving to their vocal base of conservative opposition.  

Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., called it a “shameful display once again by our Republican colleagues to govern.”  

They argued that if a vote was held next week to reauthorize the bank, it would pass with bipartisan support, and they believe that vote would come sooner than later.  

“Like Steny, I’m confident the opportunity will be there by which to do this reauthorization,” declared Financial Services ranking member Maxine Waters, D-Calif.  

Moderate Republican Rep. Robert Dold of Illinois, who wants to see a reauthorization vote come to the floor, said in a statement he visited the agency’s Chicago outpost Tuesday “to reassure them that we will not give up this fight until we have a stable, long-term reauthorization in place.”  

Last week, Hensarling drew a line in the stand against reauthorization. “As more Americans and more members of Congress learned about Ex-Im’s political lending, corruption and fundamental unfairness, the more they wanted it to expire,” the Texas Republican said in a statement. “Now the challenge for supporters of a competitive free-market economy is to make sure Ex-Im stays expired.”  

On Tuesday, Heritage Action for American President Michael A. Needham blasted out a release under the subject line, “We did it! Export-Import Bank Expires Tonight.”  

“Changes doesn’t come fast or easy in Washington, but over the past three years conservatives have created conditions that caused the Export-Import Bank to expire and enter liquidation,” Needham said. “Now it’s up to Republican leaders to accept and preserve this major policy victory.”  

As with most things in Congress, time will tell.

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