A vote Wednesday in the House of Representatives to pour billions into a little-known federal bank illustrates the divide among tea party-backed lawmakers torn between upholding anti-government principles and helping American companies compete in foreign markets.
The bill, to increase the financing cap of the Export-Import Bank, passed by 330-93. The congressional Tea Party Caucus split almost in half: Thirty-seven members opposed the measure, while 31 supported it.
The House vote arrived 18 months after dozens of tea party-supported candidates came to Washington, many for the first time, and it showed the challenge that politicians often face once elected: transitioning from campaigning against the government to becoming a part of it.
Compounding the pressure Wednesday was the fact that the bank supports industries that are key to some tea party-backed lawmakers’ states. Boeing, for example, is the bank’s largest loan recipient, and it recently built a plant in the conservative stronghold of South Carolina.
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“Some of these issues are very difficult and very complicated,” said Rep. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican who voted for the legislation. Scott, a tea party favorite and a leader of the large House Republican freshman class, added: “Some issues take more thought and time to figure out what’s right.”
Overall, all 183 Democrats who voted supported the reauthorization, along with 147 Republicans, while 93 GOP lawmakers opposed it. With the bank’s charter set to expire May 31, the Senate is expected to take up a similar bill reauthorizing the bank for three years in the next week or two. The expansion would increase the bank’s financing cap from $100 billion to $140 billion.
Scott said the measure had important revisions, among them freezing loans if the bank’s default rate exceeded 2 percent and committing the U.S. government to negotiate with other countries for decreased subsidies.
Scott’s congressional district is home to the new Boeing plant, which has just started making next-generation Dreamliner 787 aircraft. Hundreds of the planes have been sold in advance to foreign airlines, with 80 percent of those sales financed by the Export-Import Bank.
Freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney said he’d resisted strong pressure from Boeing lobbyists, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups in voting against the bill.
“The full-court press was on,” said Mulvaney, a Republican from Indian Land, S.C. “It’s hard for me to go back home and say we need to cut the FBI’s budget by 20 percent but in the next breath say we want to increase the size of the Export-Import Bank by 40 percent. It’s not consistent.”
Among South Carolina’s three other Republican House members, freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens also voted against the measure, while first-term Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg and sixth-term Rep. Joe Wilson voted for it. House Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of Columbia also backed the bill.
The legislation’s supporters said the bank made money for taxpayers as its loans were repaid with interest, with almost $2 billion returned to the Treasury over the past five years.
“The Export-Import Bank doesn’t cost the American taxpayer a single penny,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. “The products American companies make are the best in the world. American workers and entrepreneurs can compete with anyone in the world if they have a level playing field.”
But opponents said the bank hurt many American firms that weren’t as politically connected as Boeing.
“Since 2007, almost half of its money has gone to support that plucky little upstart called Boeing,” said GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California, a Tea Party Caucus member. “Air India got $5 billion to purchase Boeing aircraft, allowing them to undercut American carriers like Delta with their own tax money.”
John Kvasnosky, a Boeing spokesman, praised House passage of the legislation, calling the bank “a critical competitive tool for U.S. exporters.”
Most lawmakers in Washington state, where Boeing has large factories, and Illinois, where the aerospace giant is headquartered, voted for the measure.
“We cannot unilaterally disarm by ending the Export-Import Bank,” said Rep. Donald Manzullo, an Illinois Republican who’s been backed by tea party supporters. “That would only empower our competitors.”
Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington state Democrat whose congressional district is home Boeing’s jet-manufacturing plants in Everett, said the bank was necessary “to keep America in business.”
Many tea party-backed members who voted for the bill were influenced by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who has a strong following among conservatives.
“Make no mistake, I am no fan of government subsidies,” Cantor said on the House floor. “But to those who want to shutter the Export-Import Bank: I believe that amounts to unilateral disarmament. American businesses and American workers would suffer from unfair competition with subsidized foreign competitors.”