Trump’s about-face on Ex-Im Bank confounds conservatives
President Trump’s embrace of the Export-Import Bank is a major blow to conservatives, who had been on the verge of nixing what they — and Mr. Trump, until now — called a sop to wealthy corporations.
During the election campaign, Mr. Trump dismissed the obscure lending agency as “featherbedding” for politicians and huge companies that don’t need it, enthusing opponents who had squeezed its lending powers and said it should die off.
But the president now says he is convinced that the corporate welfare produces jobs — an about-face that irked conservatives who have been fighting for years to end the loan program.
“Unless the Trump administration has reforms that can get Ex-Im out of the business of picking winners and losers with taxpayer dollars, then it will be difficult to see any upside in this,” said Doug Sachtleben, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, a conservative group that urged Congress to let the bank expire.
Lawmakers came close in 2015, when the bank’s charter expired, but a coalition of liberals and centrists rallied to revive it. Still, conservatives have blocked nominees to the board, denying it the quorum needed to approve any deals exceeding $10 million, hoping to hobble the bank for now ahead of a final death blow when the charter expires again in 2019.
Mr. Trump, though, said this week that he now thinks the bank is a good idea.
“It turns out that, first of all, lots of small companies are really helped, the vendor companies,” Mr. Trump told The Wall Street Journal. “But also, maybe more important, other countries give [assistance]. When other countries give it, we lose a tremendous amount of business.”
The president said he would nominate people to fill the vacant seats on its board, placing pressure on senators to confirm his picks so the bank can begin clearing a backlog of 40 board-level transactions worth $30 billion.
As it stands, only two of the five seats on the board are filled, after Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby blocked President Obama’s picks from receiving a vote. Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho Republican and the panel’s new chairman, hasn’t said whether he intends to act on potential nominees.
“We’re not commenting on Ex-Im at this time,” Banking Committee spokeswoman Amanda Critchfield said Thursday.
A product of the New Deal, the bank primarily provides financing for U.S. companies looking to sell their goods overseas when private funding is not available.
Establishment players like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce cheered Mr. Trump’s change of heart, and vocal Republicans said it was a “huge” turn of events for manufacturers and workers back home.
“The Ex-Im Bank makes money for the American taxpayer and allows American manufacturers to compete for business in the developing world on a level playing field. Well done, Mr. President,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
Mr. Graham had predicted Mr. Trump’s about-face since last year, when as president-elect he intervened to save hundreds of manufacturing jobs at the Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana.
The bank said it sends any surplus from the interest and fees it assesses back to the Treasury, resulting in a $5.6 billion profit for taxpayers since fiscal 2007.
That appeared to help sway the president.
“Instinctively, you would say, ‘Isn’t that a ridiculous thing,’” Mr. Trump said of the bank’s lending model in the Journal interview. “But actually, it’s a very good thing. And it actually makes money, it could make a lot of money.”
Yet conservative pressure groups said they won’t let Ex-Im roar back to life without a fight.
“Rather than pursuing policies that subsidize foreign companies and governments,” Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said, “lawmakers should be advancing policies that truly make America great again.”
President Trump now is convinced that the Export-Import Bank’s corporate welfare produces jobs. He said he would nominate people to fill its vacant board seats.