David Rothkopf

The Commerce Department: a bureaucratic hodge-podge where old habits die hard

The Commerce Department: a bureaucratic hodge-podge where old habits die hard

Apparently Judd Gregg voted to blow up the Commerce Department in the ’90s and now here he is running it. Some of you may think that disqualifies him. But I worked as a senior official in the Commerce Department and I think it recommends him.

The Commerce Department is a bureaucratic hodge-podge held together by those old Washington stand-bys of inertia, habit, and the self-interests of Congressional appropriators. Oh, and neglect. And ignorance. Not only do most Americans not know what the Commerce Department does — its various missions are so diffuse most people who work there don’t know all that it does.

For a few choice months in 1995 and early 1996, I served as Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade during which time we enjoyed several periods of government shutdown due to budget disputes. We were asked to identify “essential personnel” who would be asked to come in to work in any case. That was tough enough. Harder still was recognizing after a while that you could probably shut the whole operation down and it would be six months before you got a letter of complaint from a constituent who noticed.

That said there are plenty of things that are done within Commerce that need to be done. We need a Patent Office. We need NOAA. We need a trade promotion and enforcement mechanism in the government. We need a Census Bureau. And so on. But they all belong in different places. In a rational world we would have a Department of Trade and Industry or a Department of Trade and Commerce that would bring together all the trade related agencies of the U.S. government. (Quick now, before they all atrophy into nothing.) So you would have the policy making parts of the USG trade apparatus (most currently in USTR) and the policy implementation parts of the apparatus (trade promotion from Commerce, trade finance from OPIC, Exim and TDA, trade enforcement from Commerce, export controls from Commerce and State, etc.) all in one place. NOAA could go to a Department of Environment and Resources. The Economics and Statistics Administration and the Census Bureau could shack up with Bureau of Labor Statistics and other statistical agencies in a National Bureau of Statistics, etc. You get the idea. A more rational structure. Monkeys will fly out of Judd Gregg’s behind long before this happens.

I was talking yesterday to a senior Republican who said to me “if there were a list made by prominent Republicans of 100 good Republican candidates for Commerce Secretary Judd Gregg wouldn’t even be on it.” (Who knows, this could also be to his credit.) But the guy added, “also he’s not seen as a number one guy by anyone. He’s really at best a number two or a number three guy.”

When it was suggested this was why he was picked, everyone around the breakfast table where the discussion was taking place nodded knowingly. Of course. The established power-center of the Obama economic team either doesn’t want a strong Commerce Secretary or they don’t care much about the job.

Here’s the problem: the job of this administration is to rebuild our economy and for all its myriad structural flaws and like of budgetary clout, the Commerce Department is the only place with anything like the capability to play a role this area. High financial policy types don’t typically think much about the grunt work of job-creation or supporting the businesses that actually create the jobs. And we have been so ideologically opposed to anything that had a hint of industrial policy to it for so long that there is no capability elsewhere to help determine where to best invest stimulus money or what the future of the U.S. economy will look like.

It is in the interests of everyone that Commerce be given not only an expanded role in these areas but the responsibilities and resources they will need to carry them out. This is a time for transformational leadership in this misshapen typically (and deservedly) neglected department. Will it come? (See earlier comment about flying monkeys.)

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