WASHINGTON – With the help of the federal Export-Import Bank, Phoenix Solutions Co. in Plymouth does 95 percent of its business in foreign sales. That fact leaves company President Douglas Frame to conclude that politicians who now oppose the bank's reauthorization — including his congressman, Erik Paulsen — are out of touch with American small businesses.
Killing Ex-Im, as the bank is known, would not kill Frame's company. "But it would certainly put a dent in our capabilities and would have a ripple effect on people here and backward through our machine shops and material suppliers," he said.
Frame struggles to grasp why after eight decades helping thousands of U.S. companies export hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of products abroad, Ex-Im almost certainly will not be reauthorized before its authorization expires Tuesday.
Republicans in charge of the House and Senate have not yet scheduled votes to keep the bank in business in apparent deference to the party's free-market conservatives and small-government Tea Partyers who oppose it. Without reauthorization Ex-Im will not be able to offer new loan guarantees or insurance for foreign sales beginning July 1.
"You have the ascendance and dominance of more radical forces," congressional expert Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said. "Practicality is not on the books; ideology is."
This will come as bad news to a number of large and small businesses in Minnesota. Since 2007, Ex-Im Bank has helped 217 companies in the state secure $3 billion in foreign sales, the government said.
Paulsen, John Kline and Tom Emmer, the Republican members of Minnesota's U.S. House delegation, did not respond to Star Tribune requests for comment on Ex-Im's imminent lapse.
The rest of the House and Senate delegation, all Democrats, support reauthorization.
The GOP's parliamentary maneuvers have rankled the bank's supporters, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Rep. Tim Walz.
In interviews with the Star Tribune, the three Minnesota Democrats said votes for Ex-Im reauthorization would pass easily in both chambers.
Walz accused Republicans of bowing to a minority of radical free-market conservatives and small-government Tea Party members who want to kill the bank for ideological reasons.
Franken called the battle over Ex-Im "enormously frustrating."
"People in Minnesota, people around the country want us to do things that are practical," he said, noting that China is already spending more than four times what the U.S. spends helping companies export products.
"Sometimes," Franken noted, "ideologies are immune to facts."
Without Ex-Im, Klobuchar said, "other countries are going to eat our lunch. Uncertainty [about reauthorization] is causing us to lose business already "
"If they want to make an ideological point," she said of Republicans, "we should at least have a vote."
A nonbinding procedural vote to consider reauthorizing the bank garnered 67 votes in the Senate recently. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to make good on a promise to allow a binding Ex-Im vote, although last week McConnell said he might attach Ex-Im reauthorization to a separate transportation bill. That move would not come before the deadline.
House leaders have steadfastly avoided any motions on Ex-Im for months as groups like the conservative political action committee Heritage Action threatened to punish members who voted for its continuation. Heritage included Paulsen, but not Kline or Emmer, on a list of Ex-Im opponents it recently circulated to reporters.
The business and labor communities are generally behind the bank's reauthorization, with groups as diverse as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO backing it.
Minnesota-based agribusiness Cargill wants the bank reauthorized, "especially to provide credit to buyers in the developing world."
"While it's not prominently used by Cargill," the company said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune, "we believe it is an important tool to maintain the competitiveness of American goods overseas."
Walz said that is what he hears from businesses in his district. "They're pretty stunned [that the bank might not be reauthorized]," Walz said. "This is just ridiculous."
Le Sueur-based cheese and dairy producer Davisco Foods International has used Ex-Im to facilitate $49.4 million in exports since 2007. Wyatt Reyerson, director of international logistics, praised Walz's support for Ex-Im. Reyerson said Davisco could face increased costs without the bank.
"We use it to help insure funds for customers or countries that we can't extend credit terms to, so it helps us to extend credit or reduce our risk in those types of situations," he said.
Opponents of Ex-Im call it "crony capitalism" that favors large companies that could get financing from private banks. They also point to defaults on some of the bank's loans.
Supporters point out that the bank charges for its services and has returned much more to the government than it has withdrawn.
While a few large companies dominate the total amount of sales dollars Ex-Im facilitates, the vast majority of the bank's customers are small businesses that supporters say could not afford to sell their products abroad without financing help from Ex-Im.
As an example, Klobuchar offered Balzer Inc., an agricultural equipment maker in Mountain Lake in southwestern Minnesota. The company, she said, provides 74 jobs in a town of 2,130 people.
Franken said he recently received a letter supporting Ex-Im reauthorization from the Alexandria Extrusion Co., which has received the bank's help with $9 million in foreign sales since 2007.
"That's jobs in Alexandria, Minnesota," Franken noted.
As with so many things in a Capitol mired in partisan gridlock, Ex-Im's demise is not fait accompli, said the American Enterprise Institute's Ornstein.
"There's a chance it could die," he noted. "I think it is more likely that they will have a vote down the road that passes it. You're going to end up with small businesses in Republican districts having trouble here."
But Ornstein admits that more uncertainty than ever before exists for the 80-year-old institution.
House banking committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican, is so wedded to free-market theories that he will try to kill Ex-Im, even though his state benefits more than any other from its services, Ornstein predicted.
"Big business and small business just don't have the influence they used to have with Republicans," he said.