- The Export-Import Bank is up for reauthorization
- Conservatives oppose the 80-year-old institution
- Supporters say its demise would cost U.S. jobs
- It's the latest battle between establishment and tea party-aligned Republicans
We've seen this dynamic before: A mundane and wonky issue that many have never heard of suddenly elevates to national prominence. Remember the debt ceiling and that it was mostly an unknown quantity five years ago?
This time it's renewing the authority of this thing called the Export-Import Bank to do business.
The obscure independent agency provides loan guarantees to foreign companies struggling to secure financing to purchase goods from American manufacturers.
But much of its financing goes to aircraft manufacturing giant Boeing and costs taxpayers about $200 million per year, which critics contend wastes money and skews private markets.
The agency's authority to make loans expires September 30 and Congress is now tasked with deciding once again whether to renew it.
But it also is the latest battle emerging within the Republican Party, once again pitting the establishment against the tea party.
Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, the political arm of a similarly named conservative think tank and leading opponent, said the Ex-Im Bank is, "the purist form of corporate cronyism that exists in Washington, D.C."
On the other side of the debate is Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests in the capital.
Wenk said the bank's demise would cost 200,000 jobs and that the chamber's members nationwide are "scratching their heads about why this is such a big deal in Washington."
The agency has been in place for nearly 80 years. Congress reauthorized it in 2012, passing overwhelmingly despite some noisy Republican opposition. There was no Republican pushback to its previous reauthorization.
Why the controversy now?
With the rise of the tea party in 2010 and the resulting influx of lawmakers fiercely opposed to more government spending, the issue had the means to gain some traction.
Needham said his organization devoted time and resources to lobby against and were "excited" to see 93 House members and 20 senators oppose it the last time around.
Heritage and other conservative groups, including Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, have now had two years to gin up a coalition and pressure Congress.
In addition, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a fierce opponent of the bank, was elected to lead the committee that oversees it, helping to raise the profile of opponents.
The bank has long had critics, but nothing has risen to the level where Congress might try to shut it down.
The bank has been involved in numerous lawsuits, including by Delta Air Lines and related groups who contend its lending practices boost foreign competitors through aircraft sales. Delta flies worldwide. Environmental groups have also launched court challenges, opposing the bank's heavy backing of fossil fuels.
In a campaign address about cutting government waste, candidate Barack Obama called the Ex-Im Bank "corporate welfare."
In the 1980s, William H. Becker and William M. McClenahan wrote in their book "The Market, the State and the Export-Import Bank" that President Ronald Reagan was "initially unsympathetic" as opposition from the left and the right rose.
But neither Reagan nor Obama tried to dissolve it. Obama now supports it and asked Congress to raise its borrowing cap and extend its authority for five years.
It's also an election year and the issue was elevated last week because the newly elected House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, flipped his position and came out in opposition, emboldening the more conservative wing of the party.
His shift comes after his predecessor, Ex-Im Bank supporter and outgoing majority leader, Eric Cantor, lost his primary to Dave Brat, who campaigned against corporate welfare.
While the Chamber of Commerce and tea party-linked groups have been battling it out in Republican primaries, this issue is adding to the feud.
"Some see it as a prime opportunity to make a political statement," Wenk said. "That's' one of my biggest beefs right now."
Neither Heritage nor the Chamber of Commerce would discuss their political strategy, but both said that using this issue in campaigns is very likely.