In Defense of the Commerce Department

Since I’ve been making fun of Commerce Secretaries lately, it’s worth being serious for a moment and noting that the US Department of Commerce actually does do important stuff. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology aren’t at the center of a lot of hot-button fights, but we need standards. The Patent and Trademark Office is, obviously, a critical shaper of innovation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does useful scientific work. The importance of the Census is obvious. And the statistics generated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis are unquestionably useful.

The problem for the Secretary of Commerce is that this is a pretty random grab-bag of agencies. There’s no “Obama Commerce Agenda” for Gary Locke’s successor to spearhead. Nor do the heads of these different agencies constitute any kind of “Commerce team” for the Secretary to lead. This contrasts even with the relatively lowly HUD. Consequently, Secretary of Commerce is kind of a nothing job even though in the aggregate a lot of stuff is happening under his nominal purview.

In light of all that, and my considered study of the history of Secretaries of Commerce, my advice to the White House is that the job is best used to elevate the profile of a talented young politician to help set him or her up for higher office down the road. Someone like a mayor who might do the job for a a few years and then run for Senate or Governor.