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Originally published April 17, 2012 at 8:53 PM | Page modified April 18, 2012 at 6:29 AM

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Future of Export-Import Bank in doubt

Boeing has been the biggest benefactor of the Ex-Im Bank. Its customers have received nearly half of all the loans made by the bank since 2007.

McClatchy Newspapers

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WASHINGTON — As a small exporter of floral greens in Puyallup, Janis van Well takes comfort knowing she has insurance from the federal government: It will protect her company's losses for up to $1.6 million if any of her foreign customers won't pay their bills.

"It gives us peace of mind," said van Well, 61, who owns Golden Eagle Evergreens with her 64-year-old husband. "We're getting a little older and, if we do suffer a loss, it hits a lot harder. If you're in your 30s or 40s, it's easier to recover."

The $4 million company, which sends its greens for bouquets to businesses in Germany, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands, is one of 74 companies in Washington state that found help in 2011 from the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

But 78 years after President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order to create the independent federal agency, the bank's future is in limbo.

To keep operating, Congress must reauthorize its charter before May 31, when the bank is to reach its $100 billion lending limit.

If Congress fails to act, no state will be harder hit than Washington, one of the bank's biggest beneficiaries and the nation's most trade-dependent state, where one of three jobs is tied to international trade.

That's according to the state's two U.S. senators, Democrats Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, who are pushing hard to keep the bank alive, saying 83,000 jobs are at stake in the state.

They fear its demise would hurt the state's exports, which increased by 21 percent last year and hit a record of nearly $65 billion. Moreover, they say, the bank — which plans to open a new branch office in Seattle this summer — has proved a moneymaker for the federal government.

The bank, informally known as Ex-Im, boasts that its overall financing exceeded $32 billion for the first time last year. The bank's lending and guarantees totaled more than $7 billion for Washington state companies.

No company has benefited from the bank's existence more than Boeing, which has its largest manufacturing plants and more than 300 suppliers in Washington state. Its customers have received nearly half of all the loans made by the bank since 2007.

That point is not lost on critics.

In a statement, Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a political-advocacy group in Washington, D.C., called the bank "a corporate welfare slush fund."

"Boeing spent over $12 million lobbying Congress last year and, in return, is getting billions of dollars in Export-Import Bank financing," Chocola said. "Congress should end the Federal Bank of Boeing and instead promote more international trade through corporate tax reform and lower tariffs."

Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and its trade subcommittee, said he has been urging House leaders to schedule a vote quickly on the proposed extension.

But three of Reichert's GOP colleagues — Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Tom McClintock of California and Jeff Flake of Arizona — have introduced the Export-Import Bank Termination Act of 2012. It would stop the bank from issuing any loans, loan guarantees or insurance within 30 days of enactment, and the bank would be abolished within three years.

"I'm concerned about where some folks might be on this," Reichert said. "I mean, this is a win-win for us. ... There is no cost to the taxpayer. And when someone has concerns about Boeing taking advantage of the Ex-Im Bank, they forget the number of small businesses that are supporting Boeing's efforts."

Eric Schinfeld, president of the Washington Council on International Trade, said the bank does not aid Boeing directly because the money goes to its customers.

"It's allowing other companies to be able to purchase Boeing airplanes, which frankly is great, because that's supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs," Schinfeld said. "And the idea that it is bad for our tax dollars to be used to help support American companies creating jobs and selling their products internationally doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever."

According to Schinfeld, the loans made in the state last year included aid for 56 small businesses.

He said most U.S. exporters are small businesses that need a source of upfront credit to finance their costs because they're usually not paid for their products until they arrive overseas. And, he said, the government can help because banks are more risk-averse and have tightened credit policies during the economic downturn.

John Kvasnosky, a spokesman for Boeing Capital, the company's aircraft financing and leasing unit, said the bank allows Boeing to compete with foreign rivals who have "aggressive levels of export finance support" from their respective governments.

He noted that Airbus, Boeing's chief European rival, benefits from export credit agencies in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Kvasnosky said the bank has rarely provided direct financing for commercial airplanes. Normally, he said, the customers of companies such as Boeing pay fees for getting a loan guarantee for financing that comes from private banks.

Cantwell, a member of the Senate's finance and commerce committees, has introduced legislation that would extend the bank's charter through 2015 and increase its lending portfolio to $140 billion.

In the past two weeks, she has visited companies around the state that have benefited from the bank, including Scafco in Spokane Valley, which makes and sells grain silos worldwide; Manhasset Specialty of Yakima, which makes music stands and exports them; and Esterline-Korry in Everett, a maker of control panels for Boeing's planes.

In the House, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, and Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., have introduced a similar bill to extend the bank.

In February, President Obama went to Larsen's congressional district in Everett to visit a Boeing plant and make a pitch for Congress to reauthorize the bank.

As a presidential candidate four years ago, Obama dismissed the bank as "little more than a fund for corporate welfare."

But as president, he has been a reliable supporter and says the bank has been a key player in helping promote U.S. exports. In 2010, Obama set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015.

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