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Little-Understood Export-Import Bank Becomes Politically Significant

Poliquin hasn't announced an official position on the bank. Above, he participates in the House Financial Services Committee on the bank in June. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 11:30 a.m. |  No politician wants to be accused of jeopardizing jobs in his or her state.  

That's the corner GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin found himself in  this fall, when Democrats attacked him for being out of touch with his district on reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.  

Since the bank's charter was allowed to expire in June , General Electric announced it will ship 500 jobs overseas, including 80 jobs that would have been created in Bangor, Maine, in the heart of Poliquin's Tossup 2nd District.  

According to a Bangor Daily News  analysis of his past statements, the freshman member of the Financial Services Committee hadn't said he'd vote against reauthorization. But he hadn't said he'd vote for it, either, and, as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pointed out in an August radio ad , that put him at odds with the Maine delegation.  

On Wednesday morning, Poliquin sent a letter to Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher and Illinois Sen. Mark S. Kirk, who have been the GOP's biggest champions of the bank, thanking them for introducing legislation to overhaul it and offering several proposals of his own, among them replacing Ex-Im President Fred Hochberg.  

“With this ongoing commitment to work together for change, I will be in a position to support the reauthorization of a more effective and accountable Export-Import Bank," Poliquin wrote.  

But Poliquin's initial waffling on the bank's fate speaks to how a once obscure federal agency is playing a bigger role in politics these days. It's become a conservative flashpoint on the right while on the left, threatened job losses are giving Democrats fresh ammunition on the campaign trail.  

Like reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, renewal of the Export-Import Bank's authority used to be routine. Congress renewed its charter 16 times in 81 years.  

But Republicans, even many who had supported it in the past, have abandoned the bank, prompting the Chamber of Commerce to promise to spend big this cycle to elect business-friendly Republicans.  

Nowhere is the party's increasingly conservative stance on the issue clearer than in GOP House leadership. Outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner has been an Ex-Im ally. Kevin McCarthy was too — until he became majority leader.  

Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America have held conservatives' feet to the fire on the issue, with the club targeting Republicans ahead of the June 30 expiration. Congressional Democrats were quick to pin GE's threatened job losses on their GOP colleagues. If Democrats get their message right, the little-understood  bank could become part of a narrative they use in competitive districts around the country.  

"The DCCC has and will continue to hold members accountable through paid and earned media on Ex-Im moving forward," a DCCC aide told CQ Roll Call.  

"The theme of what we’ll be talking about is that House Republicans are broken," the DCCC aide added. The Export-Import Bank in particular is "a great story" because it's a "case in point that there’s real impact at home."  

Democrats acknowledge the Export-Import Bank isn't the emotional touchstone that Planned Parenthood or even a government shutdown is, and said it may be hard to communicate its importance to voters.  

"You can probably count on one hand the percent of Americans who know what the Ex-Im Bank is, what it does and why it’s bad it was allowed to expire. They also shouldn’t have to know, they should just expect Congress to do it’s job," said Travis Lowe, a Democratic consultant.  

But in competitive districts, the DCCC sees an opportunity to talk about the bank as part of its larger message that Republicans are not on the side of middle-class families.  

"There aren’t always policies that are so clear cut, and this is one of them," said a Democratic operative who works on federal and state races. And it's not just Republicans who oppose the bank's reauthorization who might come under fire on this issue.  

"Even if you have signed on for reauthorization, when your party is keeping it from coming to the floor, and it’s your party, what good does it do?" asked the DCCC aide.  

"It's a problem that comes home to roost for all of these Republicans."  

Related:

Three Races in Which Export-Import Bank Could Be an Issue