The government has apparently decided to start “spring cleaning” a little early this year – at least when it comes to the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank. All data relating to this controversial institution appears to have vanished from the publicly-accessible federal repository at Data.gov.
The Ex-Im Bank, one of the more obscure outposts of bureaucracy tucked away in Washington, D.C., first entered the consciousness of many Americans last summer when the question of its reauthorization by Congress snowballed into a larger debate over crony capitalism. Opponents of Ex-Im, from U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to onetime presidential hopeful and Green Party member Ralph Nader, argued that the institution not only funneled too much taxpayer-backed funding to major corporations that didn’t need it, but that it was a textbook example of an ineffective, unnecessary government agency to boot. Ex-Im is the poster child of corporate welfare and crony capitalism and its elimination should be supported by all parties.
Moreover, some of the deals Ex-Im conducted may actually threaten American jobs by favoring certain industries over others. The Air Line Pilots Association, for example, estimated that around 7,500 jobs have been lost at U.S.-based airlines due to the Ex-Im Bank regularly helping their foreign, state-supported competitors like Air India and Emirates purchase Boeing jets at below-market rates.
Somewhat awkwardly for the Bank and its defenders, those arguing for reform – or even outright elimination – of Ex-Im found the institution’s own published data to be one of their best sources of ammunition as the debate flared. Particularly proficient at highlighting inconvenient facts is Veronique de Rugy, of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
By downloading and analyzing publicly-available data, Dr. de Rugy was able to discern – among other findings – that Boeing alone received more than $8 billion (more than 30 percent) of Ex-Im funding in FY 2013; that Ex-Im supports less than two percent of total U.S. exports; and, despite going out of its way to trumpet small-business “success” stories, Ex-Im supports only 0.29 percent of American small business jobs.
Maybe all that transparency finally got to be too much. De Rugy recently announced in National Review that the central federal data dump at Data.gov has removed all files on the agency. Searches for both “Export-Import Bank” and “Ex-Im Bank” return no results whatsoever.
What is to blame for their vanishing act? Data.gov offers no explanation when searches come up empty. Could it be some sort of ambiguous “glitch” of the kind encountered on certain other government websites?
Perhaps Ex-Im got tired of researchers, journalists – and indeed all taxpayers – having any sort of window into their inner workings. Dr. de Rugy has not been alone in discovering and publicizing details that prove troublesome for the Bank. A Reuters investigation last fall revealed that the recipients for approximately $3 billion in Ex-Im authorizations had been “mischaracterized” over an eight-year period. Major corporations – already among the Bank’s top beneficiaries – were erroneously noted in the official record as small businesses. Ex-Im admitted its mistake to Reuters, but its apparent inability to properly account for taxpayer-backed authorizations is certainly cause for concern.
Unfortunately, the Bank has established a disturbing pattern of obstructing transparency efforts. Fred Hochberg, the Bank’s head, has engaged in lengthy tug-of-war sessions with Congressional investigators over requests for Ex-Im records. A recent batch had to be extracted via subpoena by the House Oversight Committee and Hochberg continued to block efforts by investigators to interview Ex-Im officials.
The Ex-Im Bank attempting to cover its own tracks is one thing, but enlisting other government agencies to do the same would be quite another. Data.gov is run by the General Services Administration (GSA), most prominently associated in the public mind with a now-infamous photo of one of their senior officials luxuriating in a Las Vegas hot tub. The photo became a symbol for a massive scandal involving the outrageous spending of taxpayer dollars on conferences and travel for government workers. The question deserves to be asked: was it a GSA official who made the call to remove the Ex-Im files from Data.gov or did Hochberg give him a ring and call in a favor?
In any case, when Congress decides whether or not to renew Ex-Im’s charter this June, it should consider not only the Bank’s attempts to hinder transparency, but also the disturbing facts we’ve already learned about its questionable reporting practices and the case of the mysterious disappearing data.
The worst part of this debacle is that Congress could have saved itself all this trouble if it would have let the Ex-Im Bank’s authorization expire last September.