Connecting the dots… | Don Brunell

How is Seattle’s Lighthouse for the Blind connected to the Export-Import Bank?  Very closely.

Since 1918, The Lighthouse for the Blind has provided education, training and manufacturing jobs for people with visual and hearing disabilities.  Of the 400 people currently employed there, approximately 240 are blind or deaf-blind.

In its certified machine shop, the Lighthouse employs more than 70 visual or hearing-impaired machinists whose customer list includes the Federal Defense Logistics Agency, The Boeing Company and BAE Systems. The machinists earn wages and benefits comparable to similar jobs in the Puget Sound region.

By utilizing adaptive technology such as computer screen-reading software, voicing calipers and large-print keyboards, they can operate computer-controlled machinery to create aircraft parts.

Lighthouse machinists have been making aircraft parts for The Boeing Company since 1951. Each month, they produce more than 5,000 unique parts and 45,000 individual part pieces (540,000 per year) for Boeing, with an acceptance rate of more than 99.9%.

As a Boeing contractor, the fortunes of The Lighthouse for the Blind are directly connected to the fortunes of Boeing’s commercial aircraft sales.  And those sales are directly connected to the ability of Boeing’s customers to purchase its planes.

That’s where the Export-Import Bank comes in.

The bank’s mission is to support U.S. jobs by making it easier for American companies to sell their products abroad.  Since 1935, the Export-Import Bank has provided financing and loan guarantees to foreign companies seeking to buy American goods. A federal agency, the bank borrows money from the Treasury and pays interest on the funds.  It then lends that money to foreign companies at higher interest rates.

The Ex-Im Bank supports itself through interest payments and fees; no tax money is used.

Each year, Congress must vote to reauthorize the bank, but this year, with the June 30 deadline looming, some politicians are balking.  They question whether the federal government should be providing loans to foreign customers of U.S. companies.

Because of its role in financing airplane sales, some opponents call the Export-Import Bank “Boeing’s bank” and characterize the program as corporate welfare.

That’s not the case.  The Wall Street Journal reports that last year, nearly 90 percent of the bank’s deals, worth more than $5 billion in financing and insurance, directly served small businesses.  In Washington, more than 150 small businesses have used the bank.

Critics argue that companies should get their own financing.  But Todd McCracken, president and CEO of the National Small Business Association, says small companies have a hard time getting loans, and when their customers are foreign companies, the challenge is almost insurmountable.

While critics say the Ex-Im Bank gives U.S. companies an unfair advantage, it’s just the opposite.  It levels the playing field.

Some 59 countries have some type of export credit program.  Airbus, Boeing’s major competitor, is heavily subsidized by the European Union and China operates its own export-import bank.

Gov. Jay Inslee says the Export-Import Bank is a vital tool for hundreds of Washington companies, from aerospace to agriculture.  “The Bank allows these companies to export their products, grow their businesses and supports tens of thousands of jobs.”

While politicians argue the philosophical merits of the Export-Import Bank, Lighthouse president and CEO Kirk Adams, who is himself blind, sees the issue in simpler terms:  if customers can’t buy airplanes, his machinists will be out of work.

“Those folks are not getting other jobs,” notes Adams.  “Those people are going home and collecting a very small Social Security disability insurance check, and sitting on the couch waiting for us to give them a call letting them know they can come back to work.”