By Jessica McBride Special to Published Oct 07, 2015 at 3:06 PM

The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

Ron Johnson is right. Scott Walker and Paul Ryan are wrong. Ryan, though, has at least been clear about the wrong stance he’s taken, explaining it thoroughly. Walker has been at times vague and maddeningly obfuscating (depending on the interview).

I’d like to see the entire Wisconsin Republican slate – and yes, that’s bigger than just the people I’ve already cited – come together to urge the Republican-controlled House to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. This is not just an obscure issue. Wisconsin jobs are arguably at stake – well, they’re probably already gone. Instead, we’re seeing people reject pragmatic governing.

How divided are Republicans on this issue? Divided enough that Johnson and Ryan are on different sides. You don’t see that much. I think Johnson was right to vote for reauthorization, by the way – and, yes, I get it; he’s running for re-election in a tough contest and doesn’t want to be accused of costing jobs in the Republican base county of Waukesha, and he flipped from a previous vote to get there.

He was right, though, when he pointed out that killing the bank will make it harder for American companies to compete with foreign competitors (his Dem opponent Russ Feingold put out a statement disingenuously attacking Johnson for helping "turn the non-controversial re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank into a game of political brinkmanship ... " even though Johnson voted for it.) Democrats have their own goofiness on this issue. It’s sort of funny to hear them praising a corporation for making big profits, and no other than Barack Obama once proposed eliminating it before deciding it’s bad some Congressional Republicans want to. But that just shows how much the debate has shifted among the GOP and how fast.

Here’s the bottom line: A week ago, GE announced it was moving 350 Waukesha jobs to Canada because the House won’t reauthorize the Bank (even though the Senate has, and the bank has provided export financing since FDR. It’s been praised by both Republican and Democratic presidents.) It passed 147-93 among Congressional Republicans just three years ago (among them Wisconsin Republicans Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble). Ryan, Tom Petri and Jim Sensenbrenner voted against it.

The bank says it turns a profit for taxpayers, although the numbers can be calculated different ways. According to the Washington Post, the bank "supported itself and generated returns of $675 million for taxpayers last year. Its default rate as of March was under two-tenths of 1 percent."

One House Republican pushing for a vote, Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), said that the bank "is important for jobs, and it generates a profit for government." President Ronald Reagan praised it in 1984 – although he also pushed for less funding for it – saying, "Exports create and sustain jobs for millions of American workers and contribute to the growth and strength of the United States economy. The Export-Import Bank contributes in a significant way to our nation's export sales." 

Wisconsin Republican Congressman Reid Ribble told the media, "We can't just unilaterally withdraw in a global economy. It would be a withdrawal simply for ideological reasons … there are types of exports where the private sector won't pick up the financing of that business. Companies will be forced to leave the country and take jobs to countries where there is Export-Import Bank financing if we don't offer it."

So what changed? The bank has become a casualty of the rift in the GOP between moderate, establishment Republicans and the runaway, government-is-bad Tea Party wing. The typical GOP talking points of helping small businesses and job creation go out the window for the general principle that "government shouldn’t interfere in the free market or give any fiscal assistance to wealthy corporations." This works in isolation, unless you consider that other countries – like Canada – offer what we now don’t. That’s called an un-level playing field.

The Ex-Im Bank recently became a presidential campaign trail bogey man after the Koch brothers and Club for Growth launched an effort to oppose it (sounds like a liberal talking point, but that’s just a fact). Then, like dominoes, the GOP presidential candidates started to oppose its reauthorization, including Gov. Walker.

After GE made its big announcement, Walker pledged to lead a unified effort to urge GE to keep the Wisconsin jobs here. Here’s the problem with that generic talking point: He is refusing to lead on the very issue that GE cites as the reason it won’t keep Wisconsin jobs here. Got that? So what exactly is this unified effort he’s belatedly promising? I’d love to see Wisconsin media start pressing him on such details like the national media did once.

Although reporters finally pinned Walker down on Friday on the Ex-Im Bank – good for them – and he briefly reiterated that he still supports its elimination (I prefer it when he tells us where he stands, even if I disagree, than when he’s unclear on it), he spent days obfuscating on the issue – and still is, depending on who does the asking.

Walker’s first statements to the media were gobbledygook. He basically blamed Congress, saying of GE, "Unfortunately I think they are pawns in a larger political battle playing out in Washington and so it really has nothing to do with Waukesha, Waukesha County or the state of Wisconsin. It has everything to do with a larger battle in Washington, D.C." 

Got that? The governor basically blamed Congress for not authorizing something he proposed eliminating on the campaign trail.

He could try to change the political game, right? Walker still has the bully pulpit and a pretty big one; he can still command the national press, to some degree; and he has lots of friends in high places in Washington and in the party apparatus. So do Paul Ryan and Jim Sensenbrenner and the others – and they actually have votes, so their intransigence on this issue is worse than the governor’s. They’d be most powerful coming together to urge the House to get this done. I’d like to see the entire GOP delegation score one for pragmatic governing. Will it save those jobs in Waukesha? Probably too late. But who knows. It’s been reported the Canadian facility isn’t exactly up and running.

I get the arguments on the side of opposing the bank. I do think good people can disagree on this point. People who oppose the bank argue that big companies like GE don’t need the benefits of government-funded financing; they’re rich (again it’s pretty funny Dems are running around touting government-funding for the rich). Opponents say it’s corporate welfare and that government should get out of the free market. They accuse GE of using Ex-Im as a cover story and of making phony job loss claims in other states (maybe GE is bluffing to get Congress to reauthorize).

They are not entirely wrong; however, there’s a big BUT. I am sure that GE made its decision for complex reasons, BUT I also don’t think lack of reauthorization helped. Let’s say for the sake of argument that GE is making it all up to wring more money out of taxpayers and was going to move the jobs anyway for different reasons (possible but unproven). Reauthorizing the bank is still the right thing to do for American manufacturers in general. The bank says it financed $27.5 billion in U.S. exports in 2014, of which $10.6 billion involved small businesses. This is not all about GE – although a couple big companies do get a lot of it and it’s one. The Journal Sentinel previously reported that, "Since 2007, the bank has helped 218 Wisconsin companies export $5 billion worth of goods and products made in the state."

There’s currently a move by some centrist Republicans to force a vote on this in the House.

As for the free market argument, other countries (like Canada) offer this export financing.  This is basically the point Johnson made, and it’s where pragmatism must come in. A company like GE might be able to afford to stay here out of the goodness of its heart, but if it helps its bottom line not to because Canada offers stuff we don’t, that’s usually called smart business. Usually Republicans praise such things, and it’s Democrats who want companies to act all emotionally.

It’s rather rich to hear some Republicans (like Waukesha Rep. Scott Allen) blame GE for being cold-hearted. A cold-hearted focus on its bottom-line and making profits? The horrors. That’s called getting the best deal. Business 101. Right now, Canada is offering the better deal. And while job losses in other states might be overstated or phony, the Waukesha jobs were very real.

Walker is not articulating clear reasons for opposing the bank. I tried to ask for them. I sent his press secretary a series of direct questions that I thought would inform the public where he stands on this issue more thoroughly. In contrast, Paul Ryan has clearly articulated why he opposes the bank. Here is what I asked:

  1. Does Gov. Walker still oppose re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank in light of the GE job losses? Yes or no, and why or why not (note that he proposed eliminating it on the campaign trail a couple of months ago). 
  2. If he still opposes it, how does he justify that in relation to the GE job losses as GE says that's the cause?
  3. Will Gov. Walker lobby Republicans in Congress to reauthorize the Bank? Yes or no, why or why not?
  4. Does he support the current move in the House by some centrist Republicans to force a vote on reauthorization of the bank? Yes or no, why or why not?
  5. What was done BEFORE the GE job loss to keep the jobs here by him, his office and the state, and when did he learn of the GE job losses specifically?

Number 5, especially, is a big one. I received this response to my questions from Walker’s press secretary, who speaks on the governor’s behalf. This is what she wrote:

"Governor Walker’s top priority is keeping the jobs and we are working on a team effort to help GE keep the jobs in Wisconsin. If GE does not keep the jobs here, we will work with the employees to get them the assistance and services they need on the path to family-supporting careers."


Jessica McBride Special to

Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.

She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.

Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.