Does the Elusive Infrastructure Bank Already Exist?

Last week, three Washington heavy-hitters brought a new contribution to the debate over a national infrastructure bank: They said we already have one.

Mark Alderman of the Obama-Biden transition team, former U.S. Senator Evan Bayh, and Howard Schweitzer, former vice president of the Export-Import Bank co-wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post saying that the Export-Import Bank was already authorized and organized to do exactly what an infrastructure bank is supposed to do:

Is this what you had in mind, I-bank proponents? It's the Export-Import Bank -- but some experts believe it could serve the same function as a national infrastructure bank. Photo: GSA

Many of those pushing for an infrastructure bank say that public-private partnerships are part of the solution. This basic concept combines private capital with some form of public support to finance large projects. That is the Export-Import Bank’s bread and butter. Put another way, the United States already has a bank that knows how to balance investor return with lender (i.e., taxpayer) protection — often a major stumbling block to public-private deals.

They go on to say, “A newly expanded Export-Import Bank could facilitate private-sector investment in projects such as repairing roads and bridges, modernizing the energy grid, and maintaining our dams and levees — creating jobs while rebuilding the country.”

It’s a compelling argument, especially in the face of skepticism about creating a new quasi-government entity, especially in a political environment suspicious of Big Government. Some fear an I-bank will be too much like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; some would rather just stick with the TIFIA loan program; others want to encourage state infrastructure banks instead of a big national one. If making a few tweaks to an existing structure could yield the same benefits as a national infrastructure bank, isn’t that easier?

The Ex-Im bank has a similar financial model to the Kerry-Hutchison I-bank proposal (which the president has adopted) and a similar governing structure – an independent, though government-owned, corporation. Even better, the Ex-Im Bank makes money for the U.S., depositing money into the Treasury, not taking it.

“The Ex-Im bank already has some of that staff in place and an established history of success, fiscal responsibility, and a low risk to taxpayers,” said bank expert Scott Thomasson of the Progressive Policy Institute. “And there actually is a window to expand the mandate of the Ex-Im Bank if there is political support to do that.”

There’s not a lot of interest on Capitol Hill yet about this idea, but it could become the compromise that saves the whole I-bank concept. For now, some say, politicians that have been on the forefront of the bank idea would rather stick with their own idea (which they can then take credit for).

Rep. Rosa Delauro (D-CT) has been the primary Congressional champion of an infrastructure bank for the past 17 years. At an event yesterday sponsored by PPI, Delauro admitted that while the Ex-Im Bank was an interesting model, “Yes, I am wedded to an infrastructure bank.”

Sen. Mark Warner, an original cosponsor of the Kerry-Hutchison BUILD Act, gave a similarly cautious welcome to the Ex-Im Bank proposal. “I’ve not given that enough thought, but I think it’s something that ought to be examined,” he said yesterday. He did say that he and his cohorts have always thought of the Ex-Im Bank as a far closer model for the infrastructure bank than Fannie and Freddie.

Delauro also said simply expanding TIFIA or strengthening state infrastructure banks wouldn’t “meet the aims” of a national infrastructure bank. And she “applauded” the Kerry-Hutchison proposal but said hers would issue bonds and be capitalized at $20 billion, not $10 billion. “Without the enhanced finance capacity we may not be able to get to a scale that we need to properly address the jobs crisis that we face in this country and meet a bank’s potential to be able reduce our infrastructure investment deficit and enhance our global competitiveness,” Delauro said. “It’s good, it’s great, but it’s not where we could go with this concept.”

Whatever form it takes, Delauro insisted that the U.S. must not go on as “one of the only leading nations without a national plan for public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects or a national infrastructure bank to finance large scale projects and to leverage private capital.”

And indeed, there’s plenty of private capital out there ready to invest in infrastructure. Ed Smith of Ullico, Inc., a union insurance company, said his company wants to invest pension funds in a national infrastructure bank. It would create jobs for union members and have a long-term, safe and stable payout that works well with pensions. And as a member of the labor movement, he said “People have to get out of the habit of saying we need to create jobs today through infrastructure. We need to create jobs over the next ten years – and infrastructure can do it.”

“You talk about infrastructure, you don’t talk about short-term stimulus. You talk about a stimulus that’s being put in place for five, 10 years,” Smith said. “Short-term infrastructure is an oxymoron.”

That’s why job creation should focus on repair, said Gene Sperling, director of the White House National Economic Council. He told the PPI gathering yesterday that the president’s jobs bill won’t just focus on big capital projects.

“If you’re having to have a quick impact on the economy, there aren’t that many large projects that are ready to go,” Sperling said. “Like at a home – if somebody told you you could build a new room, not everybody is ready to do that. Everybody is ready to fix something in their kitchen or their stairs.”

Sperling tried to shrug off questioning about why the president was caught blindsided by skepticism of the plan from within his own party. “There aren’t many times, in my experience, where you send up a bill and they just take it exactly as it is,” he said. “I think that there is overwhelming Democratic support in the House and the Senate, and I think you’ll see overwhelming support when Senator Reid takes this to a vote.”

“The debate about how we fund it is something we should get by rather quickly so we don’t continue to fall behind and send the signal that there are better places to invest than America,” said Daryl Dulaney of Siemens. “That’s a sad reality that we’re facing.”