Fight over fate of Ex-Im Bank translates into cash for lobbyists

Hensarling’s committee has authority over the Export-Import Bank, the 81-year old credit agency that underwrites loans to foreign entities to buy U.

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S. exports, and the Texas Republican has been pushing to let the its charter expire, arguing it promotes “crony capitalism.” But doing away with Ex-Im, Dempsey says, would hurt the thousands of NAM companies that rely on Ex-Im loans to sell their products overseas.

“It was pretty obvious to us then that this was going to become the type of issue it has become,” said Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs for NAM, which represents 14,000 manufacturing companies. “It’s long been important for the NAM but it’s really only been in the last few years that it’s become so controversial. We’ve really had to heighten the level of activity on it.”

The bank’s charter expires June 30, and determining its fate has been one of the most contentious congressional debates over the past year — and one that has sparked an intra-party battle between business-friendly and free-market Republicans.

It has also unleashed a flurry of lobbying, with trade groups trying to prove their mettle to members and independent firms raking in the cash as they join the fray, proving once again how much a new policy fight in Washington can be a boon for K Street.

Last year, NAM, which has long maintained its own in-house lobbying team, began adding more resources and manpower to save the bank while amping up lobbying spending to a nearly all-time high of $12.4 million in 2014 — a 63 percent jump compared to the previous year.

Among the beneficiaries of this increased spending are former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, a Democrat, and former Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Haley Barbour, both the heads of top D.C. lobby firms, Gephardt Group and BGR Group, respectively. For their work on Ex-Im, Gephardt’s firm has earned $260,000 and Barbour’s firm has earned $350,000, according to lobbying records.

NAM also paired up with the Chamber of Commerce to create the coalition Exporters for Ex-Im, a group of 50 national, state and local business groups supporting the bank’s extension, in part to coordinate letter-writing campaigns to lawmakers and organize a fly-in. The coalition is represented by Hamilton Place Strategies, the advocacy firm run by former George W. Bush aide Tony Fratto, whose efforts include tweeting at lawmakers to support the bank.

Coalition members have published op-eds and produced YouTube videos warning of potential job losses if the bank is shut down, featuring voices as varied as the founder of a gourmet quiche shop in Freeport, New York, and the head of an airline hydraulics manufacturer in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. And the group has armed itself with statistics to make its case: In FY 2014, the bank supported 164,000 U.S. jobs and $27.4 billion in U.S. exports, and 90 percent of the bank’s transactions supported small businesses, NAM says.

“We’ve put a massive amount of effort into the Ex-Im Bank since last year,” Dempsey said. “It’s very much a priority for the NAM. This has been an all-of-organization type of effort.”

NAM is not alone.

Boeing, the bank’s biggest beneficiary, has 36 lobbyists on contract who spent at least part of their time lobbying on Ex-Im during the first quarter of 2015. They’re spread across six firms — Simmons & Russell Group, Washington2Advocates, CGCN, Monument Policy Group, S-3 Group and McBee Strategic — with each shop earning between $40,000 and $60,000 in fees for their efforts during the first three months of 2015, according to lobbying records.

The aerospace giant’s roster of lobbyists includes Kyle Simmons, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff; Sam Geduldig, former political director to John Boehner, R-Ohio, before he became House Speaker; and John Scofield, a former top Republican House Appropriations Committee aide. A Boeing spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.

Delta Airlines, the leading corporate voice opposing the bank’s reauthorization, has 17 lobbyists on retainer on the issue, spread across three firms: Elmendorf Ryan, Fierce Government Relations and Hoppe Strategies. Elmendorf Ryan earned $60,000 to lobby on Ex-Im and other issues for Delta during the first quarter of 2015. Fierce earned $80,000 during the same period. Hoppe was retained in February and has yet to report lobbying fees.

In some cases, retired lawmakers and their former aides who now earn their paychecks as lobbyists find themselves on opposite ends of the Ex-Im fight.

For instance, Democratic power broker Steve Elmendorf is squaring off with his old boss, Gephardt. And Republican lobbyist Kirk Blalock, of Fierce Government Relations, is going up against Barbour, for whom he worked at the RNC.

And the messaging strategy on both sides goes beyond traditional lobbying, bringing in paid advertising, grassroots advocacy and social media outreach.

Delta, which objects to the bank’s financing of wide-body Boeing jets to competing foreign carriers like Emirates, has deployed its pilots, flight attendants and other employees to bring their concerns to lawmakers. The airline has estimated that the bank has cost the U.S. airline industry up to 7,500 jobs and $684 million a year.

“Delta’s employees have been leading that effort,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “Pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents, ground employees and many others have made hundreds of visits with members of Congress over the past several years.”

The airline does not coordinate with the conservative groups that also want the bank put out of business, but for ideological not competitive reasons.

The Club for Growth, the Koch-backed Freedom Partners and Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, oppose the agency because they argue it is corporate welfare that distorts the marketplace, and point out that the biggest recipients of Ex-Im financing include Boeing, General Electric and Caterpillar.

Those groups have not hired formal outside lobbyists, but are spending money in other ways: The Club for Growth this spring launched a $1 million advertising campaign against the bank, including a $250,000 TV ad in Florida that calls the agency “outrageous corporate giveaway.”

The ad campaign, which urges Republican members to vote against Ex-Im reauthorization, began airing in April in the congressional districts of Reps. Stephen Lee Fincher (Tenn.), Earl “Buddy” Carter (Ga.), Renee Ellmers (N.C.) and Bill Flores (Texas), and in May expanded to the districts of Rob Bishop (Utah), Bill Shuster (Pa.), David McKinley (W.Va.) and Chris Stewart (Utah).

Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, has only 10 paid staffers but is banking on its network of 10,000 “sentinels” — a mix of tea party elected officials, Republican activists and other conservatives — to get the word out. Heritage Action’s vice president of grassroots outreach Russ Vought, a former Hensarling aide, holds phone calls every Monday night with the network to brief them on updates.

“We have these folks in every congressional district across the country,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action. “It’s a pretty wide reach. Our volunteer network, they text back and forth with members, or have a direct line of contact to a chief of staff in D.C.”

Holler said the grassroots model pre-dates the Ex-Im fight and it is now being put to good use.

“We’ve been doing pretty much the same things we’ve been doing since 2012 but with more urgency, given the deadline,” Holler said.