Trump bank nominee gets rough reception at confirmation hearing

Trump bank nominee gets rough reception at confirmation hearing
© Getty Images

President Trump’s nominee to lead the Export-Import Bank struggled Wednesday to win over the Senate Banking Committee, with members skeptical that he should helm an agency that he sought to abolish while in Congress. 

Scott GarrettErnest (Scott) Scott GarrettTrump should fill CFPB vacancy with Export-Import chief Manufacturers keep pressure on Ex-Im nominee Garrett Scott Garrett poses real threat to EXIM Bank, small businesses MORE, a former Republican lawmaker from New Jersey, repeatedly stated that he fully supports the bank and would let it “continue to fully operate.” 

“So, let me again be clear, and leave no doubt in anyone’s mind; that I commit to and will carry out the president’s vision regarding Ex-Im: a fully functioning bank,” he said. 

But those words did little to mollify the senators, who grew increasingly frustrated with Garrett as the hearing went on. Their frustration grew when Garrett dodged questions about whether his opinion of the bank, which he has labeled as “corporate welfare,” has changed.  

Instead of answering, Garrett mostly referred lawmakers back to his prepared testimony, in which he stated that he would lead the bank in support Trump’s economic agenda. 

Without providing much explanation for why he wants the job, Garrett told lawmakers that there are reforms from the last reauthorization of the bank in 2015 that would improve the its functions and keep the institution from sliding into “crony capitalism.”

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsTrump should fill CFPB vacancy with Export-Import chief Tax bill could fuel push for Medicare, Social Security cuts Senate passes tax overhaul, securing major GOP victory MORE (R-S.D.) read off several harsh statements Garrett made about the Ex-Im Bank while he was a lawmaker.

“I believe that you truly believe the statements that you made. What would have made you change your mind about whether or not the Export-Import Bank should exist,” Rounds said. 

“I think this is critical that you be able to share what has changed your mind,” the senator added.

As Garrett began to talk of the need to make reforms, Rounds interrupted. 

“If you are philosophically opposed to the concepts and if you truly believe that this bank represents crony capitalism by definition, I think it’s more than just simply asking for a reform, I think it’s whether or not, as a principled man, you truly believe that this bank can operate without being part of a crony capitalist organization,” Rounds said. 

Garrett was among the House conservatives who waged an aggressive, years-long campaign to close down the Ex-Im Bank, on the grounds that its “crony capitalism” distorts the market to help some of America’s biggest companies.

He was successful for five months in 2015, until another reauthorization of the bank was cleared by Congress. Since then, though, the bank has been short of a board quorum, which is necessary for the approval of deals above $10 million. 

The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Overnight Regulation: Feds push to clarify regs on bump stocks | Interior wants Trump to shrink two more monuments | Navajo Nation sues over monument rollback | FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Senate panel approves bill easing Dodd-Frank rules MORE of Ohio, said confirming Garrett to lead the bank would be like "putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department." 

Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank MORE (D-N.D.), who has pushed Trump to keep the bank open, said she wanted assurances that Garrett is “not there as a saboteur.”  

“I believe in this bank, and I’m not sure you do, and that’s a big problem for me,” she said.

The closest Garrett got to committing that the bank would survive was saying he would support a reauthorization measure. The 2015 law keeps the bank open through 2019. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Tech: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court fight | Warren backs bid to block AT&T, Time Warner merger | NC county refuses to pay ransom to hackers Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE (D-Mass.) also sparred with Garrett, saying his efforts to close the bank while in the House created job losses in her state and across the country. 

Warren repeatedly asked him to provide a yes or no answer to whether he would admit that “your crusade to kill the bank was a mistake?”  

Garrett said an answer wasn’t that simple.  

“If you’re not willing to say that your prior efforts to kill this bank were a mistake but now you want us to believe that you’re going to try to run a fully functioning bank if you’re confirmed, we have a real problem,” Warren said.   

“When you were in Congress the far right and the Koch brothers wanted to kill the bank, so you took up their cause, so now it is politically convenient for you to approve of the bank so you can get a job in this administration,” she said.  

“You haven’t given us a single principled reason for this change. This bank needs help, I understand that, and it needs change, but it needs a serious leader to do that, and I can’t imagine entrusting this, ever, to someone so obviously willing to blow with the political wind,” Warren said. 

Republican senator Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees GOP senator: Trump shouldn't pardon Flynn Trump should fill CFPB vacancy with Export-Import chief MORE (S.C.), who is facing pressure from the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce to oppose Garrett's nomination, was critical as well. 

“Your previous comments and position are in clear contradiction with your current position and comments," he said. 

Garrett replied, “A couple of things have changed. My role has changed, I’m not in a legislative function. I do commit sincerely to carry out the letter of the law as established by Congress because I was frustrated when that the law was not being followed under the previous administration.” 

Beyond the doubts of senators, Garrett’s nomination is facing unusually sharp opposition from business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with dozens of state-level groups.

The business groups assailed Garrett’s testimony Wednesday, saying it shows why he shouldn’t lead the bank.  

“Scott Garrett’s record leaves no doubt that he would continue to fail American manufacturing workers as leader of the Ex-Im Bank, and I urge the Senate to oppose his confirmation,” said Jay Timmons, head of NAM.

“His siren song today is a pathetic attempt to convince senators and manufacturing workers that he is a reformer, not a destroyer.” 

NAM is running ads against Garrett in South Carolina and preparing a new batch of them for inside-the-Beltway publications. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes Garrett’s nomination, said it “continues to believe that American exporters deserve a functioning Export-Import Bank led by a chairman with a proven, long-term commitment to the important work of growing U.S. exports.” 

“The chairman of the board of the Export-Import Bank is simply too powerful a role to be filled by an individual who cannot clearly articulate a deep-seated belief in the spirit of the organization,” said Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber senior vice president and chief policy officer, 

Despite their opposition to Garrett, business groups called on the Senate to quickly confirm the four nominees to Ex-Im’s board of directors — Kimberly Reed, Spencer BachusSpencer Thomas BachusTrump bank nominee gets rough reception at confirmation hearing Overnight Finance: Breaking - GOP delays release of tax bill | Changes to 401(k)s, state and local taxes hold up bill | Trump aims to sign tax legislation by Christmas | Hensarling to retire after term | Trump to repeal arbitration rule Senators, don't put Ex-Im Bank's fossil fuel financing back in business MORE, Judith Delzoppo Pryor and Claudia Slacik.

The hearing Wednesday seemed to raise real doubts about whether Garrett’s nomination can survive. Garrett would need the support of at least 12 senators for his nomination to advance out of committee, and few seemed willing to give him their vote. 

“You’ve got a past history that you never really fully explained here today,” said Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank GOP defeats Schumer bid to delay tax vote MORE (D-Mont.), later adding: "That’s not how you get confirmed around here.”