Hey, Congress—Give manufacturers a fair shot

Manufacturers in the United States are facing major headwinds, with global weakness and a strong dollar affecting demand for our products. At this critical moment, we need to keep the opportunities we have to sell our products abroad. And we need just a fair shot at competing against other countries, nothing more.

A pair of custom sneakers is packed for shipping in New Balance’s Lawrence, Massachusetts, factory.
Source: CNBC
A pair of custom sneakers is packed for shipping in New Balance’s Lawrence, Massachusetts, factory.

If Congress and inside-the-Beltway factions that put ideology above the American people continue to play politics with the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank—our nation's official export credit agency—manufacturers in the United States will lose out on essential markets and consumers. Failure to reauthorize Ex-Im's charter by June 30 will put many American exporters at a major disadvantage with the rest of the world. We cannot let that happen.

The Ex-Im Bank, created in 1934 to incentivize and assist American exporters through loans and loan guarantees, is a lifeline for many manufacturers today. Only 5 percent of the world's consumers live within U.S. borders, so we must reach international markets to remain competitive and create jobs. The bank is a vital tool that provides companies in the United States the ability to compete on a more level playing field in our ever-increasing global marketplace.

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But policy makers in Washington are waffling, and gridlock has left the future of the Ex-Im Bank uncertain. At the same time, the rest of the world is ramping up.

Right now, more than 60 other nations, including China and Japan, have aggressive export credit agencies focused on giving their own exporters the upper hand, supporting an increasing Chinese workforce and spurring Japanese economic growth. Allowing our export credit agency to lapse is tantamount to unilateral economic disarmament—a move that would give our foreign competitors a distinct advantage.

Critics of the agency, often for pure political purposes, wrongly attack its assistance of corporate America. Consider, for every major manufacturer that produces aeronautical, industrial and electrical equipment among other headline-grabbing goods, these high-end products are made up of components supplied by thousands of smaller producers that employ tens of thousands of American workers. By providing loan guarantees as well as cost-effective export credit insurance, the Ex-Im Bank helps companies take advantage of opportunities overseas and, in turn, sustain and grow jobs in the United States. In fact, the agency has supported more than 1.3 million American jobs in the past six years alone.

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The numbers are hard to ignore. The Ex-Im Bank processed more than 3,700 transactions in fiscal 2014, enabling about $27.5 billion in exports and netting fees and interest from its customers that more than covered the agency's operational costs. That's a win-win for manufacturers and the American economy.

Politics aside, some in Congress may disagree philosophically with the agency's charter. However, the choice is quite simple: either Congress lets the Ex-Im Bank lapse and forces manufacturers to forfeit opportunities, or Congress reauthorizes the agency and helps manufacturers in the United States remain competitive overseas. For manufacturers large and small, it's difficult enough to compete against each other here in the United States. It's even harder to compete against other nations, especially with one arm tied behind their backs.

Despite any philosophical differences, one thing we know for sure: manufacturing in the United States contributes more than $2 trillion to the economy annually and generates more per dollar for the economy than any other industry. America's exports now support more than 6 million jobs across the country. Sustaining this positive momentum hinges upon our ability to sell our products across borders.

As a nation, we have always competed well — no matter the arena. But while Congress delays, manufacturers pay the price, and workers' livelihoods are imperiled.

Manufacturers plan months and years ahead when it comes to bringing new products to market. Simply put, many manufacturers cannot commit to developing new products without knowing the future of the Ex-Im Bank. Without new product development, there will be no new business — and no new jobs.

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If the Ex-Im Bank is not reauthorized before June 30, America's top-competing manufacturers will lose out to foreign rivals whose governments are aggressively investing in their own export capabilities. Congress should put politics aside, let a job-creating, self-supporting agency keep doing its job and act now to keep this important institution running long term.

It's time to let our country's manufacturers — the backbone of our entire economy — compete on a level playing field with the rest of the world. Waiting is not an option.

Commentary by Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. Follow him on Twitter @JayTimmonsNAM.