Who would have guessed that congressional supporters of the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) would have used a House procedure established over 100 years ago, and not used successfully since 2002, to save the Ex-Im Bank?
The Bank, established in 1934, is often referred to as “the Bank of last resort.” It provides financing and loan guarantees as well as critically needed political risk insurance to foreign buyers who otherwise might not be able to finance imports of U.S. products. Every developed nation has some type of export credit agency, or “ECA”, as they are commonly known. Often, companies like Boeing, Caterpillar, and General Electric are cited as Ex-Im’s primary customers, but the majority of its deals involve small businesses, either for their direct exports or because they are suppliers to the large U.S. companies who do the exporting.
For years, congressional critics have sought to shutter Ex-Im, claiming that it was providing “corporate welfare” to companies that didn’t really need government support to sell their products. This year provided their greatest opportunity. The Bank’s charter needed to be extended by June 30, 2015. Failure to act would mean that Ex-Im could not enter into new deals, although it could continue to manage its current portfolio. And, it just so happens, recently Congress has been very good at inaction. When controversy arises, it is very easy for the partisan legislative branch of government to demur on action. And so, on July 1, the Bank’s charter expired, and it has been closed to new business ever since.
House and Senate Ex-Im supporters had been seeking ways to bring legislation to the floor that would resuscitate the Bank; they were certain that the votes were there in both chambers to do so if they could get legislation to the floor. But getting legislation to the floor had been elusive. This was in large part due to the strong opposition from the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, the committee with jurisdiction over the Bank, Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), as well as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was a Bank supporter and held the key to its future.
That key was a “discharge petition.” A discharge petition is a way that a majority of the House—218 members—can force the House to act on a bill by signing their names to a petition maintained by the Clerk of the House, while the chamber is in session. The content of the petition is generally a motion to discharge a committee that is holding up a bill and allow the bill’s consideration by the House. Once the requisite signatures are attained, the motion to discharge is placed on the Discharge Calendar. Once it has been there for seven legislative days, any member who signed the petition can call it up on the second or fourth Monday of a month. There is a short debate on the motion and if it passes, the House moves to debate the underlying legislation, in this instance, the bill to renew the Ex-Im charter.
The discharge procedure was first established in 1910 as a check on the authority of one of the more powerful Speakers in the nation’s history, Joseph Gurney Cannon (R-IL). Since then, discharge petitions have rarely been successful. In the last 75 years, over 625 petitions have been filed with committees being discharged only 26 times. The last time one worked was in 2002.
There are many reasons for this. Chief among them is that fact that majority members of the House are loathe to buck the committee leaders of their own party and their Leadership. The idea being that if the Leadership wanted a bill to go to the Floor, it would direct the Rules Committee to do so. But in this case, the Leadership was split. While it is not clear if Speaker Boehner overtly advised majority members to sign the petition, there is no evidence that he opposed it either. Couple that with the pressure from many outside influences, such as major U.S. exporters and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and over 40 Republicans signed the petition along with most of the Democrats in the House to reach the 218 members needed to bring the matter to the Floor. That was done on Tuesday, October 27, and it passed the House by a vote of 313-118.
The bill will now have to go to the Senate, where there are 60 votes to defeat a filibuster and pass the bill. And when that happens, the Bank will be open for business once again.