The Messy Politics of Trade and the Export-Import Bank

Can President Obama win two unlikely victories for his economic agenda?

Evan Vucci / AP

The debate over trade, jobs, and economic growth took an unexpected turn on Thursday, as an unusual alliance of senators linked congressional approval of President Obama’s trade agenda to another, less-heralded piece of his economic platform: reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. The two issues collided in a dramatic Senate vote, and the White House barely escaped having one of its prized policies derail the other.

On the president’s top priority—Trade Promotion Authority—wavering Democrats joined most Republicans to push the bill over a key procedural hurdle. Yet those Democrats offered up their votes in exchange for a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to consider legislation next month reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, an 80-year federal lending agency that has been on life support in Congress for nearly a year.

On the surface, the trade pacts and the Ex-Im Bank are distinct issues, and their intersection this week had a lot to do with timing. (The bank’s charter expires at the end of June, and Congress is about to depart for a weeklong Memorial Day recess.) But they are more related politically than you might think. Liberals oppose agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership because they believe they would undermine government regulations that protect American workers. The Ex-Im Bank supports U.S. jobs by helping companies find markets for their goods overseas—or at least that’s the argument from its backers in both parties.

But many conservatives oppose the bank for interfering with the free market, regarding it as a form of corporate welfare in which taxpayers end up subsidizing giants like Boeing and GE that don’t need government help. They oppose tariffs and trade restrictions on much the same grounds. Creating an unfettered market, they argue, entails more free trade and the elimination of the Ex-Im Bank.

Politically, the two issues make up something of a Venn diagram—the support for both overlaps in the middle. Centrist Democrats and most Republicans back Trade Promotion Authority and the agreements that would follow, while most Democrats and a sizable chunk of establishment Republicans support the Export-Import Bank. Progressives like Bernie Sanders oppose both trade deals and the bank; more business-friendly Democrats like Maria Cantwell and Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham support the two policies; and committed free-marketeers like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio back trade but want to kill Ex-Im.

For the Obama administration, the absence of defeat is not the same as victory. The “fast-track” trade bill now has a clear path to passage in the Senate, so long as it doesn’t get tripped up by a few more amendment votes. It faces a much tougher road in the House, however, where leaders in both parties have indicated it currently lacks the votes to pass. The president’s traditional Democratic allies have thus far withheld their support, and Republican leaders can’t pass it on their own because some of their members won’t support anything that helps Obama.

The fault lines on the Ex-Im Bank are in many ways more parochial. Two of the bank’s biggest supporters in the Senate are Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington State, which is home to Boeing. Both also back the president on trade, but when it came time to break a Democratic filibuster on the fast-track bill Thursday morning, Murray and Cantwell led a group of senators who refused to cast their votes until McConnell promised to schedule a vote on Ex-Im in June before its charter expires. One of those senators was Graham, who tweeted that McConnell assured him that he’d attach the Ex-Im reauthorization to another must-pass bill replenishing the Highway Trust Fund in July—which might be necessary if the House fails to act.

The House is again the biggest obstacle to re-upping the Ex-Im Bank. Deriding the agency as the embodiment of “crony capitalism,” conservatives have turned its impending demise into a cause célèbre, and the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, has made it his personal goal to let the bank’s charter expire. Speaker John Boehner supports Ex-Im, but due to his shaky political standing, he has treaded carefully in defying his conference’s right flank. He told reporters on Thursday that he refused a personal request by Cantwell to commit to allowing a vote on the bank’s reauthorization, and he said that if the Senate passed a bill next month, he’d let conservatives try to amend it.

Working together, Cantwell, Murray, and Graham seized an opportunity to leverage their influence on trade—and the joint desperation of McConnell and Obama to break that impasse in the Senate—by securing a lifeline for the Ex-Im Bank. “I’m not going to support a trade bill that doesn’t deal with this issue,” Graham said, according to Politico.  Cantwell said Obama assured her that he would make the bank “a part of the entire trade package.” The issues may now be linked, but that doesn’t mean Obama will necessarily get two wins for the price of one: For that to happen, Republicans would have to abide the government’s hand interfering in one part of the market while lessening its role in another.