The battle inside the Republican Party over its economic philosophy wasn’t always so high-stakes for business. Before Trump’s rise elevated the GOP’s populist streak from its margins to the presidency, a band of self-styled anti-corporatist Republicans in Congress had to pick an obscure fight to try to notch their first victory. Five years ago, they settled on targeting the Export-Import Bank, a theretofore sleepy New Deal-era creation that exists to provide financing guarantees for American manufacturers looking to sell their goods abroad. Free marketeers like House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) slammed it as the “Bank of Boeing,” thinly-disguised corporate welfare for huge multinationals that don’t need the assistance. They’ve tried to shut it down. Defenders say it provides critical help to domestic employers against foreign competition benefitting from similar subsidies—and it turns a profit for taxpayers. The bank has survived, bruised but not broken. Its charter (which lapsed for months in 2015) now extends into 2019, but it’s been missing sufficient board members to approve any deals over $10 million.
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A day before Trump takes power, the battle over the bank already feels like a quaint relic from another time. Trillions of dollars are now at stake in debates over remaking the tax and healthcare systems. Ex-Im, as its known, is a relatively minor appendage of the federal trade promotion machine, which itself could be fundamentally reshaped by the incoming president’s protectionism. Trump didn’t utter a word about the bank on the trail. Yet when he gets around to weighing in, his position could go a long way toward revealing an approach that’s still forming. Will Trump’s emphasis on doing whatever’s necessary to prop up domestic manufacturing, and strengthening the hand of American companies competing globally, compel him to embrace the bank? Or will he cast his lot with those who deride it as a bastion of crony capitalism?
In the absence of any indication from Trump or his team, those invested in the bank’s future have been left to try to decipher smoke signals. Fred Hochberg, who stepped down Tuesday after eight years as Ex-Im’s president, says the “landing team” sent in to the bank by the Trump transition has been “very open and accommodating and interested and have not expressed any hostility or any bias.” And he's heard anecdotally that Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor in line to lead the Commerce Department, wants to boost exports. Neither guarantees much. Hochberg argues the bank’s empty leadership ranks present Trump an opportunity to reshape it any way he pleases. But he should want to protect and harness it for his job-creation mission: “He’s talked extensively about supporting manufacturing jobs, keeping jobs in America,” Hochberg says. “This is exactly what the Export-Import Bank does.”
Trump has yet to make any nominations to the bank’s leadership. But he also hasn’t named a chair for the Council of Economic Advisers—or nominated anyone for two open Fed governor slots, or a chairman for the Federal Communications Commission, among scores of other top posts. There would seem to be little urgency about getting around to the bank. Yet Hochberg says without a quorum on the board, $30 billion of pending transactions have been left in the lurch. That includes an $8 billion deal for Westinghouse Electric to build nuclear reactors in India. One thing we do know about Trump: He loves a good ribbon-cutting.