Photo courtesy of Export-Import Bank of the U.S.
ExIm Chairman Hochberg says bank's aid can help U.S. companies that face tough foreign competition for export sales.

A tussle is likely to heat up on Capitol Hill in coming weeks over reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

Conservative groups and lawmakers want to shut the 81-year-old institution; businesses—including engineering and construction-equipment companies—and their congressional allies favor extending the bank's charter for several more years.

The debate should intensify in coming weeks because ExIm’s authorization is scheduled to expire on June 30.

Businesses are pushing for a multiyear reauthorization. Alexander Russ, Association of Equipment Manufacturers director of international and regulatory affairs, says, “The ExIm Bank is vital for AEM and our member companies.”

Russ notes in some fast-growing overseas markets, U.S. commercial banks aren’t always willing to lend, particularly to small or medium-sized manufacturers.  “It’s incredibly difficult for them to get credit,” he adds.

Russ says, “ExIm Bank plays an important role by providing not only loan guarantees but, just as important, credit insurance.”

Engineering and construction firms and heavy-equipment makers want to see the bank continue.

Jacqueline Hinman, Chairman and CEO of CH2M, Englewood, Colo., told ENR in an interview that the bank “is a tool for American businesses and service providers—and certainly the engineering and construction sector” in supporting projects in infrastructure and other industries.

Though CH2M hasn’t received direct ExIm financing, Hinman says that if the bank were to cease operations, “I think it would be harder for American companies to compete around the world in terms of infrastructure, manufacturing, etc.”

ExIm Chairman Fred Hochberg told the opening session of the bank’s annual conference, held April 23-24 in Washington, D.C., that it isn’t easy to compete against Russia, China or other countries for export sales.

He added: “We need to use every tool in our arsenal to make sure that U.S. companies are able to get into the arena—and win. ExIm is one of those tools.”

Russ notes that there are about 60 other credit agencies that foreign countries sponsor and use to assist their own companies gain export sales.

He says, “We’re not saying that the [U.S.] ExIm Bank needs to be as large as those [other banks], but it needs to exist as a lender of last resort.”

But congressional critics, including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), want to block the reauthorization.

Last year, when ExIm’s charter was up for renewal, Hensarling criticized ExIm for its “crony-based lending practices.” Though ExIm’s defenders sought a multi-year authorization, Congress in August extended the bank's authority only through June 30.

New multiyear extensions again are pending in Congress. In the Senate, Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) on March 19 introduced a bill to extend ExIm’s charter through Sept. 30, 2019. As of April 24, the measure had seven cosponsors: three Republicans and four Democrats.

In the House, Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) introduced a five-year ExIm reauthorization, which had 60 co-sponsors as of April 23. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in February introduced a bill calling for a seven-year extension, which had 189 Democrats as co-sponsors.

There have been no committee votes in either chamber on the bills.

Waters on April 30 initiated a "discharge" petition to bring an ExIm reauthorization to the House floor, if a majority of the chamber's members agree to sign it.

A recent development could provide critics ammunition: A former ExIm loan officer pleaded guilty in federal district court on April 22 to bribery related to loan applications.

According to the Justice Dept., the former ExIm employee, Johnny Gutierrez, said that on 19 occasions between June 2006 and December 2013, he accepted more than $78,000 for recommending approval of unqualified loan applications and improperly speeding up other applications.

Updated on April 30 to include Rep. Waters' ExIm bill and petition seeking floor vote.