Once Ex-Im Foe, Tea Party Congressman Leads Fight to Save It

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DEERE EARNS

The John Deere & Co. logo is displayed on a piece of construction equipment outside Martin Equipment in Rock Island, Illinois, U.S., on Friday, May 22, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Tennessee Congressman Stephen Fincher voted against renewing the U.S. Export-Import Bank three years ago. Today he is the chief Republican sponsor of U.S. House legislation to keep it alive.

Elected in 2010 as a small-government conservative, Fincher says that unlike other Tea Party members, he didn’t want to kill the agency but thought it “desperately needed” changes to limit taxpayers’ risk. After casting his no vote in 2012, he says he walked back to his office and told his staff he was determined to fix the bank to protect the U.S. jobs tied to it.

His shift illustrates the competing pressures on Republican lawmakers as Congress prepares to decide later this month whether to revive Ex-Im, whose charter expired June 30. They must choose between two of their party’s most important constituencies: activists who want to limit the government’s role in the economy and business leaders who see Ex-Im loans and loan guarantees as necessary to help U.S. firms compete overseas.

The longer Fincher, 42, served in Congress, the more likely it was he would become an Ex-Im backer, said Bradley Jackson, a vice president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce. Fincher’s Western Tennessee District includes ports, steelmakers, paper mills, medical device companies and the headquarters of Fed-Ex Corp., Jackson said.

“Time has allowed him to see a little bit more of who this helps, and all that,” Jackson said in a phone interview.

Deere Loans

One of those helped by the bank in past years is farm equipment giant and Fincher campaign donor Deere & Co., based in Moline, Illinois. Fincher, a family farmer who still owns a stake in Fincher Farms in Halls, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans for machines from Deere.

To help Deere sell its products in China and Ukraine, Ex-Im provided more than $100 million in financing between 2012 and 2013, according to the bank’s annual reports. Though the company says it will no longer rely on Ex-Im support, it favors renewing the bank. Its representatives have discussed the issue with Fincher but didn’t push him to support the bank or take a lead role, Ken Golden, a Deere spokesman, said.

Tractor, Planter

Fincher declined in an interview in Washington to say how much he currently owes the company, though financial disclosure forms showed a debt of between $250,000 and $600,000 for farm equipment, including a tractor and planter, during his 2010 run for office. He still owed Deere between $250,000 and $500,000 when he voted against the bank in 2012.

Deere’s political action committee has donated a total of $25,000 to Fincher’s prior campaigns in 2010, 2012 and 2014, according to the Federal Election Commission’s online records.

The loans and Deere’s support for Ex-Im played “absolutely” no role in Fincher’s change of heart, he said, and he sees no conflict of interest.

Even so, Fincher’s decision to champion legislation supported by a company that has lent him significant amounts of money may create a perception problem for the congressman, said Paul Jorgensen, an assistant political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg and a former fellow at Harvard University’s ethics center.

“The loans give the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Jorgensen said in a phone interview. “And perception is very important in campaign finance law and politics.”

Once renewed regularly without controversy, Ex-Im has been unable to approve new applications for financing since July 1, after Congress left Washington for an Independence Day recess without reauthorizing the bank.

Corporate Welfare

Ex-Im is opposed by conservatives including Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who say it provides a form of corporate welfare to large companies that don’t need aid. Fincher, a member of Hensarling’s committee, said in an interview that it has been difficult for him to oppose the chairman on the issue.

The legislation Fincher introduced this year would reauthorize the bank for five years while requiring about 30 changes, such as an independent audit of Ex-Im’s portfolio and a stipulation that the lender be used only as a last resort for companies unable to obtain alternate financing.

One Democrat

Only one Democrat -- Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota -- has signed onto the bill. White House officials didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether President Barack Obama, an Ex-Im supporter, would sign the legislation if it passed Congress.

Obama met Wednesday with some lawmakers who support the bank to come up with a plan on how to reauthorize it. Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who said he attended the meeting, declined to say whether the president had backed a particular approach to reviving Ex-Im.

“I think he wants to do whatever we can to bring it back,” Brown said in an interview in the U.S. Capitol yesterday.

Ex-Im spokeswoman Dolline Hatchett said the bank doesn’t have an official position on Fincher’s bill, H.R. 597.

‘Jobs’ Issue

“This has always been about what we thought was right for jobs in our district,” Fincher said. He said he couldn’t recall any Tennessee businesses pushing him to change his position on the bank.

“A lot of people say: Hey why are you doing this? Is GE or Boeing in your district?’” Fincher said, referring to the bank’s top two beneficiaries last year. “I don’t have any of those big guys in my district; this is about all the small manufacturers that create jobs all over the country.”

Deere isn’t the only major corporation that has benefited from the bank and contributed to Fincher’s campaigns. So have political action committees for New York’s JPMorgan Chase & Co., Hartford, Connecticut’s United Technologies Corp. and Memphis’s International Paper Co.

Tom Ryan, a spokesman for International Paper, said the company has “not engaged in any advocacy” on the bank’s future. Andrew Gray, a JPMorgan spokesman, said the company doesn’t discuss its meetings with members of Congress.

Campaign Donations

United Technologies’ political action committee has donated to Fincher’s prior campaigns because they have about 1,100 employees in his district, said Marty Hauser, the company’s director of government relations.

The fact that large companies like JPMorgan and United Technologies benefit from Ex-Im has left the bank open to criticism from small government proponents like Hensarling, the House Finance panel chairman, who argue the government shouldn’t be helping selected corporations as they fight for overseas sales.

Hensarling said at a May press conference that he and others who oppose the bank are trying to “lead the party in a new direction” that will give priority to free enterprise over individual business interests.

The antipathy of small government groups might not hurt Fincher, said Marsha Lyle-Gonga, the chairwoman of the political science department at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His district had been long represented by a Democrat, and Fincher’s 2010 win was part of the Tea Party wave sweeping the country, she said.

‘That Wave’

“At that time residents were looking for somebody that wanted limited government, somebody that would hold government accountable. He really came in with that wave,” she said. Those same residents, she said, have been “pushing the other way once he was actually in there.”

“He is probably weighing all that together and has had a change of heart,” Lyle-Gonga said. “And yeah, he may be called a flip-flopper but that is often times how it goes in politics.”

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