Hard-right Republicans have wrongly singled out the Export-Import Bank as a symbol of "corporate welfare" and unnecessary government that should be abolished. They are guilty of mistaking rhetoric for reality.
The focus on outsized government is warranted, but in the case of the Ex-Im Bank it is misplaced.
Critics of the Ex-Im Bank level two charges. The bank, they say, is a costly program that benefits a few big clients at the expense of the taxpayer, and they contend that its services are unnecessary. The new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Cal., recently said that the Ex-Im Bank should be closed, explaining: "One of the biggest problems with government is they go and take hard-earned money so others do things the private sector can do."
But he's wrong, or mostly wrong, on both counts.
The bank assists in financing the export of U.S. goods and services through its loan, guarantee and insurance programs when the private sector is unable or unwilling to do so. In an area where other governments are involved in export assistance, the Ex-Im Bank helps level the international playing field for American producers.
Killing the bank could do real harm to the U.S. economy.
The Peterson Institute on International Economics, a leading non-partisan think tank, looked at the issue in a 2011 policy brief on the role of the bank in a world full of similar export credit agencies (ECAs) supported by other governments. It concluded, "The comparative advantage of the Ex-Im Bank and other ECAs is their ability, both technical and political, to take risks shunned by the private market."
Small and medium-sized banks don't have the expertise in foreign markets, and large banks shun the small loans that Ex-Im Bank makes to small and medium-sized export firms. About 90 percent of the loans Ex-Im makes are to small businesses, and it does business in 170 countries.
True, big, healthy exporters like Boeing and Caterpillar make good use of Ex-Im's services. But they might not be as big or as healthy in the export line without the bank's help. The world is full of governments in Europe and Asia providing export credit assistance to their own firms that compete with our major manufacturers for foreign markets. Think Airbus or Komatsu, or their emerging Chinese competitors.
The political leaders who oppose renewal of the Ex-Im Bank need to get back on track and focus on real threats to national stability, of which there are many.
The cost of ever-expanding government health care, for example, is rising faster than revenues and the nation's long term income. To paraphrase Willie Sutton, "That's where the money is," and where the Tea Party should be looking with a frugal eye.
But it will take patience, hard work and a focus on the future to have any significant impact on the cost of entitlements.
In contrast, the Ex-Im Bank is a comparatively easy target for anti-government ire. Killing it might satisfy a political constituency, but it would do real harm to the national economy.