WASHINGTON — Democrats including Sen. Sherrod Brown on Wednesday repeatedly grilled the man nominated as the next president of the Export-Import Bank why he wants to lead an institution that he spent much of his time in Congress trying to shut down.
Former Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey was a leading voice in repeated calls to shut down the Export-Import Bank, a small federal agency that provides and guarantees loans aimed at getting U.S. products into foreign markets. In Ohio, some 258 businesses benefited from the program between 2007 and 2014, and the bank has supported $2 billion worth of business in the state.
Garrett and other critics have said the organization is “crony capitalism,” a government agency that picks winners and losers.
For nearly two hours at the Senate Banking Committee Wednesday, the Democrats - and at least one Republican - puzzled over why Garrett wanted to head an agency that he vowed to close. Garrett was one of six the panel was nominating for the bank. One was nominated to be the agency’s inspector general and another - Judith Delzoppo Pryor, nominated to be a member of the board of directors - is a native of Cleveland.
“Confirming Mr. Garrett as president of Ex-Im would be like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department,” said Brown, an Ohio Democrat who is the ranking Democrat on the panel.
Garrett refused entreaties to explain his change of heart, saying he is “committed to keep the bank fully open and fully operational.” He said he supports President Donald Trump’s agenda.
“I will carry out the president’s mission and I will see to it that the bank is fully operating,” he said.
Democrats, however, were skeptical.
“I just need to know you’re not going to be there as a saboteur,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota. “I believe in this bank and I’m not sure you do.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, said she believes Garrett is accepting the job “so you can get a job in this administration.”
“This bank needs help,” she said. “I understand it needs change, but it needs a serious effort to do that. And I can’t imagine entrusting this effort into someone so obviously willing to blow with the political winds.”
Brown echoed that belief.
“It seems to me what’s changed is you’ve been offered a good-paying job to run the Export-Import Bank,” he said.
Even some Republicans questioned Garrett’s motivations. Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said he believed Garrett was “a man of principle,” and wondered why he’d take the job. Garrett said many of his negative statements came before a 2015 reauthorization of the agency. However, the bank has been unable to assist in transactions larger than $10 million because it lacks a quorum.
Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, said he, too, is a skeptic of the bank. But he said he’d be willing to support all of the nominees if Garrett’s nomination is approved. If he wasn’t, he said, “I’ll do everything I can to prevent the Export-Import Bank from getting a quorum,” he said.
Outside of the Senate panel, Garrett’s former congressional allies praised his nomination.
“The Export-Import Bank is a scandal-plagued institution in dire need of reform,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana. “Scott Garrett is a wise choice and will bring common-sense changes to the way the Ex-Im Bank is run.”
Reach Jessica Wehrman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jessicawehrman.