Is it possible to eliminate a government subsidy or will the forces of corporate welfare inevitably prevail? That's the essence of the current debate over the Export-Import Bank, the fate of which must be settled by members of Congress upon their return to the Capitol next week.
The obscure government agency dubbed “Ex-Im” funnels billions of dollars to foreign firms for the purchase of U.S. exports. Taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for the $140 billion in loans and other credit that is currently outstanding, with the likes of China, Russia, Venezuela and bankrupt Argentina among the recipients.
The issue now before Congress is whether to reauthorize the bank's charter, which expires on Sept. 30. Proponents claim the bank aids small business, creates jobs and “levels the playing field” in global trade. In reality, it does nothing of the sort.
This decision should be a no-brainer for lawmakers. More than 98 percent of U.S. exports are accomplished without Ex-Im subsidies. The biggest beneficiaries are multinational corporations that could easily access private financing, including Boeing ($91 billion market capitalization); General Electric ($267 billion); Bechtel (2013 revenues: $39.4 billion); and Caterpillar (2013 sales and revenues: $55 billion).
Moreover, Ex-Im is beset by mismanagement, dysfunction and risk, all of which have been documented for years by the bank's own inspector general and the Government Accountability Office. Even Barack Obama, during his 2008 campaign, called for ending Ex-Im.
Pennsylvania hardly is a top Ex-Im beneficiary, according to data compiled by Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. Between 2007 and 2014, the state received just 2.7 percent of Ex-Im financing — compared to the 43.6 percent that went to Washington state (home of Boeing). And just 2.1 percent of Pennsylvania exports (by value) benefited from bank support. That means, of course, that 97.9 percent of the state's exports didn't rely on Ex-Im subsidies at all.
But powerful forces have aligned to maintain the lucrative subsidies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable. The closer the expiration deadline, the more advocates insist that Ex–Im is necessary for job growth and small business — the shiny objects that seem to attract the attention of lawmakers regardless of the truth.
There's no meaningful evidence that Ex-Im subsidies create jobs. The bank does not count actual employment related to its projects. It simply extrapolates numbers based on national data. This formula does not distinguish between jobs that existed before or after Ex-Im financing or among full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs. It also assumes that average employment trends apply to Ex–Im clients (who might not be typical).
Less than 20 percent of Ex-Im financing benefits America's small businesses. And the number that do receive aid is artificially inflated by the bank's expansive definition of “small,” which includes firms with as many as 1,500 workers, as well as companies with revenues of up to $21.5 million annually. Even the bank's own annual report shows it consistently fails to achieve the congressionally required level of authorizations for small businesses.
Proponents also claim that financing deals for multinational corporations benefit the small businesses that operate as suppliers. That assumes that the economic activity subsidized by Ex-Im would not occur absent bank financing. But U.S. exports hit a record-high $2.2 trillion in 2012, reflecting no shortage of private export capital. Moreover, several of the largest beneficiaries operate financing subsidiaries of their own.
In some cases, Ex–Im financing actually puts small businesses and U.S. workers at a disadvantage by providing overseas competitors with billions of dollars in financing at artificially low rates.
Recently, for example, the bank approved $694 million in financing for U.S. equipment to develop an open-pit iron ore mine in Australia (owned by the country's richest woman). The deal was consummated despite warnings from the United Steelworkers, the Iron Mining Association and all four senators of Minnesota and Michigan that the subsidies would jeopardize thousands of U.S. mining jobs.
The bank is neither the biggest nor worst manifestation of corporate welfare. But change in Washington rarely occurs on a grand scale. Ex-Im is a practical and rational target at present for reasons both material and ideological.
If lawmakers cannot end this relatively small subsidy — one that would have little impact on its beneficiaries — what hope is there of ever containing the unparalleled expansion of government?
- Diane Katz is a research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review