If they had a kitchen sink, pro-business lobbyists pushing for the renewal of the Export-Import Bank might have thrown that, too.
For the better part of two years, a group of influential business interests — led by the National Association of Manufacturers, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate giants Boeing and GE on their side — spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pressuring lawmakers to renew the credit export agency that, until recently, was a relatively obscure and uncontroversial provider of loans to foreign buyers purchasing U.S.-made goods.
“We did everything in our power for several years to make sure we were protecting manufacturing jobs in the U.S.,” said Ned Monroe, senior vice president of external relations at the NAM, of his group’s lobbying efforts to renew Ex-Im Bank, whose charter expired June 30.
Finally, the bank’s allies now appear on the verge of a victory. A provision renewing the bank’s charter until September 2019 is in the highway bill that cleared the House and Senate on Thursday. President Obama is expected to sign it into law Friday.
The likely renewal of the bank’s charter is thanks to widespread and aggressive lobbying tactics by its friends. And renewal would represent a big win for a coalition that had weathered an embarrassing albeit temporary defeat at the hands of conservative outside groups like Heritage Action, The Club for Growth, and Freedom Works, which fiercely oppose the bank as “corporate welfare” and have highlighted it as a “key vote” for their members.
During the two-year struggle, the bank’s corporate allies hired new lobbyists, assembled a coalition with a communications team, and recruited 250 companies and associations nationally to knock on lawmakers’ doors.
As the months dragged on, they experimented with several legislative strategies: passing standalone legislation, attaching reauthorization to this summer’s fast-track trade bill, tying it to the short-term spending measure that passed in September and, ultimately, marrying it to a must-pass highway spending bill.
“A priority like Ex-Im is something that we looked to move in whatever vehicle is going to get signed into law,” said Aric Newhouse, NAM’s senior vice president of policy and government relations. “What matters less to us is the vehicle, the form, the process. The Washington game of what package it’s going to catch a ride on — we play it because we have to. But we’re agnostic. What matters to us is that it’s signed into law.”
In the end, though, the business community’s greatest allies may have been timing and circumstance.
In September, shortly before House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced his bombshell resignation, House members who supported the bank initiated an unusual procedural motion called a discharge petition, forcing a vote on the bank over the objections of House leadership. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) served as the key go-between with Reps. Steve Fincher (R-Tenn.) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), members of the House Financial Services Committee who openly clashed with the chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), over his refusal to move Ex-Im legislation.
Hoyer held private meetings with Fincher and Lucas before the early October signing of the petition and guaranteed them virtually every single one of the 188 Democrats would sign, so the Republicans just needed about 40 from their side. Deep down, Fincher knew that he had in excess of 100 GOP votes to support the bank, but wasn’t sure how many would be willing to take the unusual step of bucking their leadership and signing a petition to force a floor vote.
But once Boehner was pushed out by the far-right flank, and his deputy, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) couldn’t assemble the votes to succeed him, Fincher and Lucas pounced, taking advantage of the leadership vacuum and lining up 42 Republicans.
“Timing was key,” said Austin Weatherford, chief of staff for Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an early supporter of the petition who helped drum up support for the effort among House Republicans. “When the speaker resigned, there was an opening because we were basically leaderless for that month. You had people who would never sign on to something like this sign on because … they didn’t feel like there were going to be repercussions because there wasn’t a speaker in place.”
Another turning point was when Ex-Im’s June 30 expiration stopped being a hypothetical and became a reality. After that milestone, GE announced plans to move several hundred U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas so it could take advantage of other countries’ credit export agencies.
“The lobbying prior to [the bank’s expiration] hadn’t been effective,” Weatherford said. “Once the bank expired, it opened people’s eyes a little more, members were hearing from small businesses, medium-size businesses, large businesses. Once the reality of the situation set in … that lobbying was effective.”
The coalition backed by NAM and the Chamber served as a critical hub for information.
“The coalition that supported the discharge petition was critical in getting this done because there’s only so much time that staff has to communicate with other members and other staff,” Weatherford said. “You need people on the outside who, this is their full-time job, the coalition was key in keeping track of people.”
Hoyer said Thursday that a key boost for lawmakers supporting Ex-Im was the mutually benefical backing of most corporate and big labor interests.
“There was a constituency on both sides for this bill,” Hoyer said, dismissing opposition from conservative “ideological groups” as ineffective when such an overwhelming House majority “You had nobody on the outside who was against this.”