David Rothkopf

Gary Locke is a great appointment to Beijing, don’t replace him…

It says something about Gary Locke’s tenure as secretary of commerce that it is clearly a promotion for him to have been named to an ambassadorial post and sent to the other side of the world. It also says something about the post he is being offered — ambassador to China — by far the ...

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

It says something about Gary Locke's tenure as secretary of commerce that it is clearly a promotion for him to have been named to an ambassadorial post and sent to the other side of the world. It also says something about the post he is being offered -- ambassador to China -- by far the U.S. government's most important diplomatic posting in the world. Locke is an excellent choice for the new job and will undoubtedly excel in the role. In fact, there is really only one thing the Obama administration can do to make this smart appointment even better: It can not appoint a replacement for Locke.

Locke is a soft-spoken, detail-oriented, thoughtful, lawyerly fellow, which is not surprising given that in addition to being the former governor of Washington, he is also a lawyer. As a Chinese-speaking, trade-smart Chinese-American from a state with important export ties to China and having the stature that comes of cabinet and state governor posts, he's an ideal choice for the Beijing job.

His tenure as commerce secretary was muted because his particular skill set was not particularly suited to being a cheerleader for U.S. industry. He has no bombast in him, and for a politician he is singularly devoid of the hail-fellow-well-met gene. But beyond his personal traits, one of the reasons he struggled as commerce secretary was that the Commerce Department itself is such a mishmash of agencies with competing missions that the reality is that the vast majority of people who have led the agency have disappeared without a trace into its bowels.

It says something about Gary Locke’s tenure as secretary of commerce that it is clearly a promotion for him to have been named to an ambassadorial post and sent to the other side of the world. It also says something about the post he is being offered — ambassador to China — by far the U.S. government’s most important diplomatic posting in the world. Locke is an excellent choice for the new job and will undoubtedly excel in the role. In fact, there is really only one thing the Obama administration can do to make this smart appointment even better: It can not appoint a replacement for Locke.

Locke is a soft-spoken, detail-oriented, thoughtful, lawyerly fellow, which is not surprising given that in addition to being the former governor of Washington, he is also a lawyer. As a Chinese-speaking, trade-smart Chinese-American from a state with important export ties to China and having the stature that comes of cabinet and state governor posts, he’s an ideal choice for the Beijing job.

His tenure as commerce secretary was muted because his particular skill set was not particularly suited to being a cheerleader for U.S. industry. He has no bombast in him, and for a politician he is singularly devoid of the hail-fellow-well-met gene. But beyond his personal traits, one of the reasons he struggled as commerce secretary was that the Commerce Department itself is such a mishmash of agencies with competing missions that the reality is that the vast majority of people who have led the agency have disappeared without a trace into its bowels.

Frankly, it should be considered a destination of choice by the folks over at the federal witness protection program.

President Obama and those closest to him — including one of the few people who have ever successfully led the Commerce Department and then gone on to bigger and better things, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley — recognize this and have very wisely and none too soon undertaken a review of whether or not to restructure the agency along with the other white elephants, redundancies, and lost causes of the federal bureaucracy. The effort is being led by former business exec Jeff Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as a former management consultant, CEO, and very successful entrepreneur, an ideal choice for the mission.

While it is reported that Locke himself only heard of the president’s intention to announce the initiative to rationalize the structure of departments including his own a few minutes before the announcement was made, the idea is a sound one that should be well-received by both parties in the current atmosphere of frugality — or at least expressed frugality — in Washington.

What Obama should do is appoint an acting commerce secretary to serve as a place holder. (Perhaps appointing Zients into a kind of caretaker role to oversee the change would be a good step. An analogy is the role Elizabeth Warren is currently playing re: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.) Putting someone new and "permanent" in the existing commerce job would a.) Immediately create an opponent to any meaningful restructuring and b.) Be quite tough if they knew there was a serious effort to dismantle the agency afoot. Then, the president and his team should take the steps that have been obviously called for by many of us who have worked at the Commerce Department and on the economic side of the U.S. government for years. They would include:

  • Collecting all the trade-related elements of the U.S. government into a single, integrated agency. Instead of more than a dozen different such agencies, you would have one place where a cabinet secretary led a policy development team that would determine how to use the tools at its disposal. Those tools would include a trade negotiating shop (formerly USTR), a trade enforcement shop (elements of commerce plus bits and pieces from other agencies), a trade promotion shop (built around the International Trade Administration plus bits and pieces from more than 12 other agencies), and a trade finance shop (OPIC, Eximbank, TDA, etc.). Each such "shop" would be led by an undersecretary.
  • This "Department of Trade" could also encompass various industry- and technology-related support functions from finance to research and regulation, including, for example, parts of commerce like NTIS, the National Technical Information Service. In this way its mission could be broadened to support U.S. economic growth broadly as the Department of Trade, Technology and Industry or Trade, Industry and Innovation.
  • The Patent Office would be spun off on its own, which is more or less how it operates now.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be spun off to the Department of the Interior where it belongs (alongside, possibly, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality).
  • The Economics and Statistics Administration could be merged with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and related agencies into a single, unified statistical agency serving the executive branch.

Significant personnel cuts could result from this. Personally, my sense is that the International Trade Administration (where I used to work) could easily have half as many people if more of its functions took advantage of modern technologies to facilitate service delivery, awareness, etc. I’m sure that’s true elsewhere in the department. Efficiency would be enhanced otherwise through consolidation, and in the end, following the above approach should save hundreds of millions or a couple of billion dollars (depending on how draconian the merging and rationalization and redundancy-elimination processes were).

Needless to say, there will be hurdles. Entrenched bureaucracies will scream to high heaven and political appointees will fight for their jobs via every means available at their disposal. And they won’t be the worst of the problem. That will come from congressional appropriations and oversight committees that won’t want to give up their power over key functions but must if consolidation is to take place.

But the moment has never been better to make this move … and to make it the first of a series of similar, serious government restructurings to show that both the executive branch and the Congress are serious enough about all this cost-saving talk to actually do something about it.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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