Friday, June 15, 2012

Ex-Im Bank's Continuing Woes -- No Toilet Paper

The greatness of a man’s leadership is often measured in his ability to think and act on his feet.

What happened in the admittedly convoluted procedure of getting multi-year renewal of the US Export-Import Bank charter last month was a case in point. After nearly a year’s delay, Congress finally approved a compromise reauthorization bill for the Bank – which was finally deemed essential by everyone involved, including many of its critics.

Months before, the original deadline for renewal went by on October 2011. Congress extended the Bank’s charter through a series of short-term actions and did not take up full renewal until nearly May 30 this year. I was talking to Ex-Im Bank President Fred Hochberg well before the October 2011 deadline, congratulating him for his and his staff’s work in being available to members of Congress and working the process early on.

But I also cautioned him, informally, that he should not be overconfident when it comes to Congressional debates on international trade/aid agencies like his own. I remember telling him not to be surprised to see something unanticipated come at him "out of left field."

At that time there was a growing caucus of conservative Republicans in the House – known as the Tea Party – looking for some high-profile issue to pursue. They argued successfully that the government should not be using taxpayers’ money to fund an official export bank – essentially funding a welfare program for big American corporations.

I mentioned the Tea Party issue. He quickly dismissed my advice, saying – "not a problem."

Then another "left fielder" emerged in the debate. Domestic airline carriers – and their American Transport Association – had for a long time criticized the Bank for providing subsidized loans to foreign carriers without providing similar treatment for domestic carriers that buy Boeing aircraft.

But this year the debate took hold. The group and their Congressional backers – led by Delta Airlines – continued their criticism in the renewal debate saying the dual treatment undercut their bottom line and created an un-level playing field.

In combination with the Tea Party action, critics now had real traction in the debate.

It reminded me of the decades-ago coalition of US steel and textile sectors that successfully derailed Congressional consideration of some major trade-liberalization efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The final Ex-Im Bank bill ended up with a number of "strings" attached relating to closer Congressional and public scrutiny of its activities and loans as well as a directive to the Administration to negotiate a global end to official export financing altogether.

All the while, Ex-Im chief Hochberg – (I think following political directives from the White House) – started up a highly vocal effort to blame the Republicans for the stalemate, instead of admitting to the Administration’s own dismal record of working with Congress on almost any issue.

Mr. Hochberg made it all worse – first by giving a series of interviews with Reuter news service blasting Republicans for trying to kill the Bank and put hundreds of thousands of American workers out of their jobs. He even participated in a couple of high-profile and well-publicized Capitol Hill press conferences with staunch Obama Democrats also anxious to score political points by blaming the Republicans.

Economically, it was a serious issue. So responsible House Republican and Democrat leaders joined hands to try to end the whole unnecessary brouhaha. Chief House Republican Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia – whose conservative Southern Virginia district was one of birthplaces of the Tea Party movement – and liberal Democrat House Majority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md) – whose suburban Washington D.C. district has much invested in high technology manufacturing and exports – both worked hard and responsibly behind the scene to come up with a face-saving compromise.

Mr. Hochberg and his Congressional staff were left aside so as not to do any further damage.

So both sides reached a compromise only days before a final deadline when the Bank was sure to go out of business – at least temporarily.

The bottom line was that Mr. Hochberg was a simple White House soldier, following orders from the politico generals in the White House – with little concern for this own 80–year-old institution.

The Ex-Im Bank’s chief shortcomings in leadership showed up again just recently – at least in the view of this reporter.

Last week, at the occasion of a quarterly meeting of the Bank private-sector advisory committee, it was discovered – first hand by this reporter – that the men’s room on the 11th floor had no toilet paper. (Sources also told me that there was none in the ladies’s room).

In my opinion this situation was just as serious as renewal of the Bank’s charter.

Someone had the foresight to post written signs in the rest rooms that there was no toilet paper – a classic example of Washington bureaucratic theory in practice. It suggested using paper hand towels to do the job. (Obviously whoever wrote that message had no knowledge of plumbing.)

Not that my opinion means anything, but it seems to me that the President and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the US Export-Import Bank – wrapped into the personage of Fred Hochberg – should have had the authority, the foresight and the loose change in his pocket to direct one of his staff to visit the convenience store across the street to buy a couple of packages of paper to relieve the crisis, especially on the day the Bank’s advisory committee members would be using the restrooms. But for Washington, that was too easy of a solution and probably would have violated General Services Administration guidelines.

(An aside – If the Bank had been a union shop, there would have been no toilet paper crisis at all.)

Jim Berger

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