Does anybody really know who the Commerce Secretary is?

Should anyone really care that we don’t have a Commerce Secretary?

Does anybody really care?

Really. Its budget of between 6 and 7 billion dollars is by far the smallest of any Cabinet Department. That kind of money would be a rounding error for the Pentagon or HHS; hell, the Pentagon lost that much money in transit between Washington and Baghdad.

And what really does it do? It’s sort of a hodgepodge of unrelated things. Its biggest normal budget item is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which really should be in EPA. Note that Obama moved aggressively to appoint a NOAA director (the superb Jane Lubchenco), but has seemingly lost interest in that director’s ostensible supervisor.

That’s not an accident. Take a look at the Secretaries of Commerce: you will find exactly one who put his stamp on policy, and that one was Herbert Hoover. (Even then his influence was overrated, an artifact of his ability to churn out memos and reports that are the fodder for the historian. Calvin Coolidge remarked that “Hoover has been giving me advice for six years — all of it wrong.”). The only other ones who even merit mention are Maurice Stans, who quit to run the Nixon re-election campaign (from which he was indicted and acquitted), and Malcolm Baldrige, who drove the Reagan Administration in a protectionist direction but failed in his goal of seizing control of trade policy from USTR.

The Department has two other major sub-agencies: the Census Bureau, and the Patent and Trademark Office, both of which are 1) quite important; 2) totally unrelated; and 3) not necessarily placed in any Cabinet Department.

An insider at Commerce reports that staffers there feel left out. I’m wondering whether that’s a pretty common feeling over there.

Anything to do about this? Not necessarily. But there are a couple of intriguing possibilities:

1) In the run-up to the 2012 Election, President Obama should propose abolishing the department. It would be his equivalent of Bill Clinton’s support of school uniforms and V-Chip: small, symbolic gestures that send a sort of cultural signal. You can trust the Democrats to run the government frugally. (One could argue that no Democrat ever wants to send this signal because it reinforces a Republican frame, but I don’t think that that’s true: even socialists don’t like to waste money). The Gingrich Republicans vowed to eliminate the Department, but as with most conservative beliefs, it was quickly forgotten as soon as the GOP took power. This would be a nice act of political jiujitsu if Obama could do it.

2) In his recent book Common Wealth, Columbia University Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs proposed a new Department for International Sustainable Development, modeled on Britain’s Department for International Development. The weakness in all of Sachs’ writings is his inability to comprehend politics or bureaucracy, and this is no different: he doesn’t really tell us what this department would do, why it needs Cabinet status, etc. And in his telling, it’s just one more department. But perhaps some shuffling around might allow Commerce to do the job. The US Agency for International Development is currently an independent agency, and could be moved over. I don’t know what other agencies would have to be moved (although this blog post thinks it through more fully than Sachs did), but it could give the Department a mission, which is more than it has now. It could also signal a serious US commitment to fighting extreme poverty without multiplying government departments.

Obama obviously has more important things on his plate than the Commerce Department. But either of these ideas could be useful down the road.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.