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Why Bernie Sanders voted with 18 Republicans on the Export-Import Bank

The revealing Democratic politics of the Export-Import Bank, explained.

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Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

There’s one issue on which Bernie Sanders still outflanks his competitors on the left: the always-divisive Export-Import Bank.

Sanders sided with 15-plus Republican senators — including strident libertarians like Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky — on Senate confirmation votes this week for Judith DelZoppo Pryor’s and Kimberly Reed’s nominations to the Ex-Im Bank’s board of directors.

Fellow 2020 Democratic candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Michael Bennet all voted in favor of those nominations, along with every other present Democratic senator. These were actually quite important votes — as the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney wrote, the board had been hobbled in issuing loans because it didn’t have enough members to reach a quorum.

“I am not convinced that any of the nominees of the Export-Import Bank will make the types of reforms we need to grow jobs in the United States,” Sanders said in a statement to Vox. “At a time when almost every major corporation in this country has shut down plants and outsourced millions of American jobs, we should not be providing corporate welfare to some of the biggest job outsourcers in this country.”

(On the week’s one other Ex-Im nomination, Spencer Bachus, Warren and Gillibrand voted against confirmation and Sanders did not vote, for the record. But Sanders was alone in his opposition on two of the three confirmation votes.)

The Export-Import Bank, an obscure federal agency that subsidizes foreign purchases of American goods, is an odd-duck political lightning rod after Tea Party conservatives tried (and failed) to kill it in the Obama years. Sanders was a fierce critic of the bank during his 2016 presidential run; he had voted against its reauthorization in 2015 and even called for its elimination absent reform.

The president appoints members to the bank’s board, so a Democratic president would have a chance to significantly reorient its operations. In general, the party is at an inflection point on trade, with the left sensing an opportunity to disrupt the long-held Democratic business-friendly mainstream consensus.

But Sanders still sticks out in his critique of this particular institution.

“The Export-Import Bank needs to be reformed to become a vehicle for real job creation in the United States,” the senator told Vox. “And it should not be providing low-interest loans and loan guarantees to big fossil fuel companies that are endangering the planet.”

Bernie Sanders, Export-Import Bank hawk

I reached out to all the major 2020 Democratic campaigns about the Export-Import Bank. I was most interested to hear from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is generally aligned on the left with Sanders on trade and has the most well-developed policy platform.

Her campaign flagged this comment at a 2015 hearing on the bank as indicative of Warren’s feelings:

I believe that Ex-Im bank helps create jobs in Massachusetts and across America, the kinds of good manufacturing jobs that we are losing to other countries far too often, and the Bank does that while consistently making money for taxpayers. I understand this point.

But I also believe there is significant room for improvement in the Bank’s operations, including a commitment to make these loans more easily available for small businesses.

It’s worth noting that Sanders and Warren have similar prescriptions for Ex-Im: They want it to spend more of its money to support small and medium companies instead of mega-corporations like Boeing and General Electric. Most of the money loaned by the bank does currently end up benefiting large corporations.

But the subtle distinctions in their economic theories — Sanders’s belligerence toward institutions of all kinds, Warren’s cautious optimism about capitalism — shine through in Warren’s general support for the bank and Sanders’s hostility.

Then again, the bank does after all have a sustained record of making money for the American taxpayer, as Warren noted in her comments. It made a $1.1 billion profit on $27 billion in authorized loans in 2013. Its elimination (which Sanders isn’t really bringing up at the moment) might be an overreaction.

This is the kind of issue where there is real disagreement among Democrats

The other 2020 Democratic campaigns sound quite favorable toward Ex-Im. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s campaign noted that he enthusiastically called for the bank’s reauthorization in 2015. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s campaign says he is “a longtime supporter” of the bank, and that as president, he would “continue to support this important American institution that helps us compete globally.”

Joe Biden as vice president gave the keynote address at the bank’s annual conference. Sen. Michael Bennet, running as a centrist, deployed the popular argument that because other countries like China have loan programs to prop up their own businesses, the United States needs the Export-Import Bank to support its firms.

“Michael is focused on getting the Export-Import Bank back up and fully running so we can finance American exports and the jobs that come with them,” his campaign said.

Export-Import is, obviously, a trade issue, and that is one of the chief areas of real disagreement among the Democrats running for president in 2020. Progressives see the primary as a chance to put somebody with a more populist trade agenda in the White House. This is an issue where the president exercises a lot of autonomy; President Trump is in the midst of rewriting NAFTA, a top campaign promise of his.

“I think we’re at a tipping point,” Thea Lee, who leads the lefty Economic Policy Institute, which is critical of existing free trade agreements, told Vox earlier this year. “You could see Democrats retreat to their comfort blanket. My hope is we can convince people that’s not an option. We’re not going to go back to the status quo ante. What we need to do is have a forward-looking vision.”

Sanders and Warren have built up credible records of pushing progressive trade policy. Biden, on the other hand, the leader of the 2020 pack for now, generally supports free trade agreements, as have some of the other center-left candidates in the race.

Peterson Institute

Granted, electability seems to be at the forefront of voters’ minds these days more than the Export-Import Bank probably is. But it’s not every day that Bernie Sanders votes with Rand Paul (and a dozen-plus other Republicans) and against Elizabeth Warren.

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