Obama Picks a New Commerce Secretary. Maybe He Shouldn’t Have.

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REUTERS / Brendan McDermid

President Obama has chosen a new commerce secretary, former Edison International CEO John Bryson. He sounds like a good choice, a solid businessman with a public policy background and a strong green streak. But you know who would have been better?


As I’ve written before, the Cabinet is too big. And Commerce is a perfect candidate for downsizing; it’s a dog’s breakfast of sundry agencies, some duplicative, some useless, some useful but unrelated to commerce. Traditionally, Presidents ask their fundraisers to be commerce secretary, which ought to tell you something about its importance; Obama has broken that tradition by asking just about everyone to be his commerce secretary. Here’s a rule of thumb: If a President can ask someone who doesn’t agree with any of his economic policies to run an economic department—as Obama did when he offered Commerce to Republican Senator Judd Gregg—the department doesn’t need to be in the Cabinet.

In fact, some Republican Senators are already pushing to merge the Commerce Department with the Labor Department to form a single Department of Commerce and Workforce. Why not Commerce and Labor? Because Republicans hate the word “labor.” Especially Republicans like sponsor Richard Burr and co-sponsors James Inhofe, Roger Wicker, John Thune and Dan Coats, not exactly a Who’s Who of good-government reform. John McCain, who does have some reform on his resume, and Mike Lee, a principled Tea Party conservative, are also co-sponsors. But the list does make you wonder whether the bill is less about rational reorganization than an underhanded attack on Obama’s Labor Department under the liberal former congresswoman Hilda Solis, who is probably regulating coal mines or carpal-tunnel syndrome too vigorously for the GOP’s taste.

It’s still a good idea! There actually used to be a single Department of Commerce and Labor, but President Taft split it in two on his last day in office in 1913. Now there’s a bloated Labor Department, a collection of overlapping job training programs, regulatory agencies and other more and less useful workforce-related stuff, as well as the preposterous Commerce Department, with agencies ranging from the National Weather Service to the Patent and Trademark Office to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Burr’s bill would move NOAA to the Department of Interior, which is such an obviously sensible move I doubt it will ever happen. (Speaking of which, why is the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture? Do we even need a Department of Agriculture?) It would also combine duplicative functions in the two departments, which currently function as quasi-competitors within the federal bureaucracy, except during Republican administrations, when the Labor Department barely functions at all.

This kind of merger probably wouldn’t save all that much money in the short term. But for those of us who think that the economy still needs stimulus, that the sudden clamor to shrink government in the short term when unemployment is 9% is terribly misguided, that’s a feature, not a bug. As Joe speculated and Jared Bernstein confirmed with actual data, the rapid contraction of public-sector jobs in the Socialist Age of Obama has been a real drag on growth.

But the upside of the rush to shrink government is that some government really ought to be shrunk. For example, as the ethanol industry’s Public Enemy No. 1, I was pleased to hear that its economically and environmentally disastrous subsidies are on the chopping block, although I’ll wait for actual chopping to celebrate. This is also a perfect time to begin the downsizing of the Cabinet, which has doubled in size since the Kennedy Administration, even though it’s halved in importance. I wish John Bryson all the best; it’s nice to see a businessman who’s also an environmentalist at the higher echelons of government. But he’ll disappear after his confirmation.

Here’s another rule of thumb: If the only time you hear about a Cabinet agency is the day the President chooses a secretary—or in the case of Commerce, the multiple days the President chooses a secretary—it’s probably not that important.

Updated at 1:24 p.m.