First, a shoutout to a commendable example of bipartisan problem-solving, in which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) brokered a deal to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, extending it until September 2014 and increasing its loan limit from $100 billion to $140 billion.
The deal is far from ideal and has the truly unpalatable element of requiring the administration to, in effect, phase the Ex-Im Bank out of existence. But with the clock ticking, finding a bipartisan agreement was urgent and, for once, the House got it done.
Which is not to say we have a done deal. Despite the ardent support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America are not only lobbying hard against the bank but are telling lawmakers that a vote for it will be counted as a black mark against them.
Nothing sends chills up the spines of Republican House Members and Senators more than the threat of a challenge from a Club for Growth-financed primary opponent. The votes should still be there in the House, including many from the Democratic side, but even if the reauthorization makes it through the House, it is not a done deal in the Senate, at least as written. And in the end, a House-Senate compromise might have to climb another steep hill in the House to enactment.
For all that, I am happy to see the Cantor-Hoyer deal, and not just because the two leaders found a way to get together on something. The Ex-Im Bank is a huge success story through numerous administrations of both parties and is under particularly strong management now. The Ex-Im Bank not only does not cost taxpayers a dime, it turns a dandy profit (almost $2 billion during the past five years) from its careful management of the fees it charges companies for loans and assistance.
Critics charge that it is another Fannie Mae (even though it has none of the characteristics of Fannie Mae, very conservative management of its loan portfolio and a tiny loss rate of less than 2 percent). U.S. companies have to compete in a global economy where other countries uniformly supply loan assistance and subsidies, many of them hidden, to give leverage to their firms to gain contracts and export products abroad.
Export-related jobs are a huge and important driver of the U.S. economy, and the record of the Ex-Im Bank is clear: Using private funds and with minimal exposure to taxpayers, it has been a major driver of U.S. exports and a driver of jobs and corporate profits in the United States.
Will the Cantor-Hoyer deal be a precedent? It is hard not to be skeptical. Let’s face it: Given the Club for Growth’s ardent opposition, the chances that the majority would seek a deal and find one would have been minuscule if it were not for the equally ardent support of the chamber and NAM. And in the one area where a deal is necessary and seems utterly compelling to both sides — a transportation bill that is key to our economic recovery and prosperity — we see little but gridlock.
We appear set on a path, at least through the end of the year, of yet more stopgap continuing resolutions because the transportation bill that passed the Senate with a broadly bipartisan 74 votes has no traction in the House. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the House alternative the worst transportation bill he had ever seen, and it cannot seem to muster 218 votes there. Here, the big problem is obvious: The gas tax that pays for roads — in effect, a user fee for those who benefit directly from them — has not been adjusted for inflation or raised to take the pressing infrastructure needs into account and is nearly tapped out. Good work on infrastructure requires planning, not the uncertainty of stopgap measures.
This week also underscores the underlying dysfunction that makes optimism about bipartisan deals so hard to maintain. Remember the huge kerfuffle two years ago when the House Democrats suggested using “deem and pass” on the health care reform bill?
To little fanfare and no outcry, GOP leaders used deem and pass recently to get the appropriations panels to abide by the lower levels of the House-passed budget. But apparently they did it so poorly that they had to do it again this week — while also waiving yet again the three-day rule in place so that there can be full public scrutiny of bills brought to the floor.
The fact is that self-executing rules have been used frequently by both parties, so this embarrassment is only a sign of rank hypocrisy, not of outrageous abuse of power. But it is also a sign that the House will continue to founder, using tricks and continuing resolutions to avoid catastrophe more than finding ways to forge bipartisan problem-solving agreements.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.