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Opinion: Columnists

Export subsidy fight pits Maxine Waters against Mike Lee

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Opinion,Timothy P. Carney,Columnists,Export-Import Bank,Mike Lee,Boeing,Maxine Waters

Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters — "a dynamic liberal Democrat who champions the causes of the poor and downtrodden," as the liberal press calls her — held a rally of sorts at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Waters' cause: supporting the federal agency called the Export-Import Bank, which subsidizes exporters, banks and foreign companies.

"Pin the Left between their egalitarian facade and their elitist agenda, and force them to choose between K Street and Main Street."

Among the needy on stage with her was the top lobbyist for Boeing, the prime beneficiary of Ex-Im.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Republican Sen. Mike Lee posted an op-ed on the conservative National Review Online on Monday blasting Ex-Im as "unfair," and suggesting it represents "crony capitalism" and "corporate welfare."

This fall's fight over this little-known federal agency could become a battle royal, and the ideological lines are as clear as the difference between Mike Lee and Maxine Waters.

Waters' rally for Ex-Im featured the typical Ex-Im poster children: Six of the seven businessmen who spoke at the event were small businessmen whom Ex-Im has supported. But only about one percent of one percent of U.S. small businesses — that is, one in 10,000 — get Ex-Im support.

More than 80 percent of Ex-Im's subsidy dollars support big businesses. Ex-Im's biggest subsidy product is long-term loan guarantees, and last year two-thirds of those (measured in dollar amounts) supported Boeing exports.

It was fitting, then, that one of the faces on stage for Waters' rally was Ted Austell III, Boeing's “vice president, executive, legislative and regulatory affairs.”

A self-avowed progressive rallying with Boeing lobbyists may seem odd at first, but it's actually a natural fit.

Waters, the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, has a corporatist streak, consistently advocating government direction of and support for industry. In 2008 she threatened to nationalize the U.S. oil industry. She told oil executives that if gasoline prices went higher she would "be about basically taking over, and the government running all of your companies."

She consistently votes for state-industry entanglement—subsidies and regulation. She supported the Wall Street bailout. She supported the mortgage bailout in mid-2008. She supported the auto bailout. She led the fight in 2012 to extend a bank-bailout program called "Transaction Account Guarantee."

In Maxine Waters’ economy, big business rows the boat while government steers.

So of course she supports Ex-Im, which uses taxpayer money to backstop Wall Street loans to foreign buyers buying Boeing jets and other U.S. goods. It’s another way for government to get business to do what politicians want—in this case, sell goods overseas. On Tuesday, Waters expressed her pleasure at the “loyalty” Ex-Im's beneficiaries show to Ex-Im and its president, Fred Hochberg.

Waters has a murky history of blending private profit and public power. During the late-2008 financial crisis, she set up a meeting to discuss securing bailout funds for "minority-owned banks." The only bank discussed was OneUnited, where her husband was formerly a board member, and in which he still owned stock. OneUnited later got $12 million in bailout funds.

An ethics investigation never found clear evidence that Waters violated House rules, but it did reprimand her chief of staff Mikael Moore, who was also her grandson, for not steering clear of the conflict of interests.

Waters organized Tuesday’s event to combat Ex-Im’s opponents, whom she called “vocal activist lawmakers on the Right, who are ideologically opposed to many legitimate functions of government.”

In February, Waters sent a letter to Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, chastising him for not having held a committee hearing yet to reauthorize the agency.

Hensarling voted against Ex-Im's reauthorization in 2012, and in 2013 suggested that it is "time to exit the Ex-Im." This is becoming the conservative position in Washington.

On the Senate side, Mike Lee is leading the anti-Ex-Im charge. He has introduced a bill to wind down the agency, and his NRO op-ed painted the Ex-Im fight as a chance to display "a reformed Republican party seizing the moral high ground against political corruption.” By opposing reauthorization, the GOP can "pin the Left between their egalitarian facade and their elitist agenda," Lee wrote, "and force them to choose between K Street and Main Street."

Of course, not all Republicans are ready to battle K Street. The Ex-Im fight will give these reluctant conservatives a choice this year: Mike Lee or Maxine Waters.

Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.
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