Why Australia’s richest person may doom Al Franken

Katherine Rosario Communications Deputy, Heritage Action
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The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) announced today that Minnesota Senator Al Franken is among a group of Democrats that are in contested races and “more vulnerable than the NRSC originally expected.” One of Franken’s least known vulnerabilities is 10,000 miles away in Australia.

First, some context.

This fall, lawmakers will battle over whether to reauthorize the U.S. Export-Import Bank, an 80-year-old institution, which has the alleged purpose of facilitating U.S. exports by providing loans and loan guarantees to foreign companies for the purchase of U.S. goods and services. The Bank’s charter expires in September, and to many, ending it is a no brainer.

But in politics, policy must become parochial for a politician before they see the error of their ways. In July of 2013, the Bank’s activities became a threat to Minnesotans and for Franken, who voted to reauthorize the Bank just months earlier.

It apparently didn’t matter the Bank’s activities in support of multinational corporations – the primary beneficiaries of the Bank’s financial activity – have earned it a bad reputation. This year, it was called “little more than a publicly subsidized piggy bank for large corporations, who retain private profits while transferring risk to taxpayers.” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) recently called the Bank the “face of cronyism.”

Apparently, when Mr. Franken voted to reauthorize the Bank, he wasn’t concerned about keeping taxpayers on the hook for lavish subsidies to foreign firms, or that the government has no business picking winners and losers by engaging in cronyism.

But when the citizens of Minnesota were in danger of being directly and substantially harmed, Mr. Franken suddenly became “concerned.”

At the time, the Bank was proposing $650 million in financing for the Australian Roy Hill iron ore mine, provided that the company purchase its equipment from U.S. companies such as Caterpillar Inc. That deal, secured by Australia’s richest person, has now gone through and will supposedly support the export of approximately $522 million worth of mining equipment to Australia. Australia’s incentive? Subsidized access to American mining equipment that will enable the mine to produce 55 million metric tons of iron ore annually, more than the entire annual iron ore production in the U.S.

Franken joined Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in writing a letter to Ex-Im Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg to express their concern over the deal’s effect on U.S. iron ore production. Franken said:

Mining is critically important to Minnesota’s economy and to the well-being of our communities across the Iron Range. I’m strongly opposed to any action by the Export-Import bank to finance foreign operations that would hurt Minnesota’s iron ore industry.

U.S. iron ore production is concentrated in Michigan and Minnesota, as the letter also noted. That’s personal. American companies are harmed when the Bank makes them compete with foreign companies on uneven footing. The Bank’s claim that they “level the playing field” is laughable. In fact, as the Heritage Foundation notes:

Advocates also claim that the bank is necessary to create a “level playing field” vis-à-vis government subsidies to foreign firms, but only 2.2 percent of all U.S. exports last year received Ex–Im financing, which means that 98 percent of American exporters are competing without the bank’s intervention. Nor is the playing field leveled for the domestic firms that do not receive special treatment.

The Bank’s fundamental flaws were evident long before a deal was struck with an Australian mining company, benefitting Australia’s wealthiest person while harming U.S. workers and jobs. It’s a shame Mr. Franken and his colleagues that supported the Bank’s reauthorization couldn’t see those flaws.

It remains to be seen whether the Bank’s direct effect on Minnesotans will reorient the Senator, but we’ll know soon enough. And you can guarantee Franken’s constituents will be watching.

Katherine Rosario is communications deputy at Heritage Action for America (heritageaction.com).