Export-Import: Battle Royale

The Delta Air Lines Inc. terminal at LaGuardia Airport in New York.

Photograph by Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg

The Delta Air Lines Inc. terminal at LaGuardia Airport in New York.

The lobbying fight over the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which helps foreign buyers purchase American-made goods, has officially begun.

The National Association of Manufacturers, a major Washington-based industry group, today held its first “lobby day” on Capitol Hill to keep alive the 80-year-old lender beyond Sept. 30, when its charter expires. The organization says the bank’s financing is crucial in helping its members find customers overseas.

Delta Air Lines Inc. has other ideas. Pilots and flight attendants for the Atlanta-based carrier have been canvassing the halls of Congress this week to tell lawmakers that the bank’s financing benefits foreign carriers at Delta’s expense.

Who’s right? That’s for Congress to decide in the coming months. Expect a lobbying battle royale between the airlines and large business organizations in Washington this summer.

“This is the first of many lobby days,” Linda Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs for the manufacturers’ group, told reporters on a conference call today. “We are seeking a long-term reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank, and that is our message.”

The debate is essentially a replay of a 2012 dispute over the future of the bank, which offers loan guarantees, insurance and loans. President Barack Obama’s administration is seeking a five-year reauthorization, with a gradual increase in its lending cap to $160 billion from $140 billion currently.

Some U.S. airlines led by Delta say the financing helps competitors like Air India Ltd. and Dubai-based Emirates Airline buy wide-body planes made by Boeing Co.

“U.S. airlines are being disadvantaged by our government, making it impossible to compete,” John White, a Detroit-based Delta pilot, said today in a statement.

There’s also a Tea Party twist, as limited-government advocates say the bank picks winners and losers.

“Eliminating the Export-Import Bank would level the playing field and allow U.S. companies to compete for business on their merits rather than the strength of their political ties to the bank,” thirty groups including Heritage Action for America and Tea Party Nation said in a May 1 letter to lawmakers.

The playing field is what the bank and its advocates say is at risk, as nations including South Korea, Russia, China and France provide financing to boost their own exports.

Daryl Bouwkamp, senior director of international business development and government affairs for Vermeer Corp., an Iowa-based industrial equipment maker, says he’s already seen American companies lose out. He cited a case last month in which a Korean company won a contract to drill for methane in the Philippines with the backing of government financing from Korea.

Bouwkamp, who participated in today’s call with the manufacturers, said he’s asking lawmakers for long-term renewal of the Export-Import Bank’s charter.

“Markets don’t appreciate uncertainty, and our customers don’t either,” he said.


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