AUGUSTA, Maine — A threat by General Electric Co. to move 80 future jobs from Bangor to France has brought Congress’ fight over the neutered U.S. Export-Import Bank to Maine.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District and the state’s top bank critic, has been criticized for it by Democrats: He’s the rare Maine politician who hasn’t voiced support for the bank, whose authority lapsed in June.
The bank, which provides loans to foreign buyers of American goods, is in jeopardy: Some conservatives say it should be starved because it distorts free markets, while Democrats and Republicans with business backing say that could trigger U.S. job losses.
Last week, it hit home in Bangor: GE announced that if the bank isn’t authorized, they would move future work that could support 500 jobs in Maine, New York and South Carolina to Europe and China.
Poliquin is criticizing the bank, but being coy about how he’d vote on reauthorizing it. The rest of Maine’s congressional delegation supports it, and Democrats are already giving it lots of attention in the run-up to his 2016 re-election bid.
Poliquin is leaving himself some wiggle room to vote for reauthorizing the bank, but he’s railing against it while echoing arguments from conservative colleagues.
The Senate has voted to reauthorize the bank, but House Republicans haven’t brought it up for a vote and it languishes in the House Financial Services Committee, on which Poliquin serves.
In July, MPBN reported that Poliquin was opposed to reauthorizing the bank. Notes from a March meeting with the New England Council say that Poliquin was a “lean no” on reauthorizing. But Poliquin spokesman Michael Byerly said those “do not define Congressman Poliquin’s position” and “he did not say he would vote against the bank,” though he didn’t say how he’d vote.
Poliquin’s top concern has been “corruption” at the bank. As of June, the bank’s inspector general said there were 29 open fraud investigations related to bank activities, and since 2009, there were 50 convictions and $255 million in repayments and judgments. Last week, Poliquin said if corruption is rooted out, he could support the bank.
But he has made other cases against it: In a news release after GE’s announcement, he called it “corporate welfare” that overwhelmingly benefits large companies and in a June hearing, he criticized it for potentially putting taxpayers at risk if loans go wrong.
Those arguments have been made by bank opponents, including U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Poliquin has also talked tough on GE since the announcement, saying in a radio interview that they’re “using their employees as political pawns.”
“They should not be, in my opinion, exporting, or considering, or threatening to export some of those jobs overseas just because the taxpayers aren’t subsidizing their loans enough, and that’s exactly what’s going on,” Poliquin said last week on WVOM.
But he’s isolated within Maine’s congressional delegation on the bank, which could make it a good campaign issue for Democrats in 2016.
Maine isn’t known for being a big exporter, but since 2007, the Export-Import Bank has supported $292 million in exports here, including $52 million in the 2nd District.
After the announcement, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and independent Angus King released a statement saying the GE situation is “exactly why” they voted to authorize the bank in July. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, called it “really outrageous” that House Republicans haven’t brought bank authorization up for a vote.
But even Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, supports the bank. He signed an April letter with a majority of American governors that said not renewing it would “harm businesses in our states.” That could give the issue legs against Poliquin in 2016. Democrats Emily Cain and Joe Baldacci are vying for their party’s nomination for the seat, and both support reauthorizing the bank.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued radio ads hitting Poliquin on the issue in August, but now, Phil Bartlett, the chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said he expects the issue to be “at the heart of the campaign” against Poliquin.
“At the end of the day, to literally vote against the interests of his district will inevitably come back to haunt him during the campaign,” Bartlett said.
But Brent Littlefield, Poliquin’s political adviser, said his stance “doesn’t have anything to do with ideology” and that “the Democratic Party is working very hard to start this campaign a year and a half early.”
“His record will be judged on what he does over the entire length of his term,” Littlefield said.