Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips has a message for House Republicans: When the Export-Import Bank approaches its Sept. 30 expiration date, do nothing.
"We're asking Congress to do something it does exceeding well," Phillips wryly told a room of allies and reporters on Capitol Hill on Monday. "Just don't do anything."
The call to inaction was echoed by several other speakers on hand representing Heritage Action for America, Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, among others. The coalition of conservative groups strongly oppose the reauthorization of the institution designed to help U.S. companies finance goods for sales overseas, which they call anachronistic, a slush fund, corporate welfare and "cronyism."
The Monday gathering in the Rayburn House Office Building also kicked off what is expected to be a coordinated campaign to push lawmakers — especially Republicans who have the majority in the House — to reject the Ex-Im Bank's reauthorization. The Obama administration is backing a five-year extension for the bank, along with a lift to its lending cap to $160 billion through September 2019.
Outside groups are poised to issue key votes, buy air time against noncommittal members and inundate town halls during the decisive August recess ahead of the midterm elections in November. Last week, 30 conservative organizations signed onto a letter articulating their opposition.
"All too often the Republican Party is ... tagged as being the party of corporate welfare and big business. This is an opportunity to flip that on its head," Heritage Action Communications Director Dan Holler said at the event on Monday. "Think about an election cycle where Republicans can ... credibly claim that they are in Washington fighting against corporate welfare. That's a game changer for a lot of voters.
"It's great policy," Holler continued, "and the politics will follow."
House Republicans are divided on the issue, with business-minded GOP lawmakers supportive of a reauthorization and more conservative members of the House Republican Conference opposed.
One member willing to lead the charge against the Ex-Im Bank from his perch on Capitol Hill is Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who has introduced legislation to terminate the bank. That bill currently has three GOP co-sponsors: Michael C. Burgess of Texas, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Tom McClintock of California.
The Ex-Im Bank opponents' most influential champion, however, is House Finance Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who is taking a strong stance against reauthorization and has said his panel will hold hearings on the matter in the weeks ahead.
“Only in Washington can a taxpayer-subsidized program whose only purpose is to pick winners and losers ‘fail upward’ by requesting more money," Hensarling said in a statement from late April, adding that it was "inconceivable" that the bank would be asking for additional funding when its own inspector general has raised serious concerns about its risk management capabilities.
“I have always believed that re-authorizing the Export-Import Bank is a bad idea," Hensarling said.
Hensarling's position on the Ex-Im Bank could put him at odds with his leadership, which has in the past facilitated reauthorization. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., struck a deal with Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., almost two years ago that extended the bank’s charter for three years and increased lending authority to $140 billion.
This year, Cantor has been hesitant to get involved with the Ex-Im issue, seemingly sensing how his participation could anger conservatives ahead of the elections, making it unclear exactly what Congress will do with the export credit agency
Hensarling might have to decide to what extent he wants to further alienate the senior slate of party leaders, as he has already publicly clashed with them once this year on legislation to extend the national flood insurance program.
Update, 5:51 p.m. | On Monday afternoon, a spokesman for the Ex-Im Bank emailed CQ Roll Call with a statement in defense of its organization and operation:
"Ex-Im Bank proudly stands behind its 80-year track record of supporting American jobs through exports. We supported nearly 1.2 million jobs here at home over the last five years, including 205,000 American jobs last year alone. We continue to level the international playing field and expand growth opportunities for thousands of U.S. companies, nearly 90 percent of which are American small businesses.
"The Bank is also fiscally responsible, having sent more than $1 billion to the U.S. Treasury in 2013 – an all-time record – for deficit reduction, and we did so with a historically low active-default rate of less than one quarter of one percent. We are optimistic Congress will reauthorize the Bank as soon as possible, so America’s exporters have the certainty they need to grow their businesses and create jobs."
Matt Fuller and Ben Weyl contributed to this report.