In choosing John Bryson as his nominee to be the next U.S. secretary of commerce, President Obama has chosen a perfect representative of our new ruling class. He is the founder of a lobby group, the powerful Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who became a regulator with California’s Public Utility Commission, then a rent-seeker with Edison International and Boeing. His experience is not in commerce at all, but in getting government to direct monies to favored companies. To be fair, that is the role of the Commerce Department these days, which is exactly why Congress needs to abolish the Commerce Department.
The department proclaims its mission is to “promote job creation, economic growth, sustainable development and improved standards of living for all Americans by working in partnership with businesses, universities, communities and our nation’s workers.” Yet all the evidence suggests that this is unnecessary. America’s native genius lies in its ability to generate jobs, wealth and improved standards of living - when government allows it to. As we say at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “We don’t need to teach the grass to grow. We just need to move the rocks off of it.”
Far from teaching the grass to grow, the Commerce Department rearranges the rocks. Its various bureaus dole out grants to politically favored projects, burden commerce with regulations and in some cases, try to kill off disfavored industries.
Commerce Department bureaus include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been a prime mover in climate alarmism and is now attacking the New England fishing industry via a cap-and-trade-style scheme that favors allies of the NRDC over smaller, traditional fishing companies. There are bureaus designed to inhibit rather than foster trade, like the sinisterly-named Bureau of Industry and Security and the International Trade Administration.
Then there’s the Economic Development Administration, which is essentially responsible for a permanent Keynesian stimulus package, handing out corporate welfare, and the Minority Business Development Agency, which the Cato Institute describes as overseeing “racial spoils programs.” The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) proclaims its efforts to “advance national goals,” such as its Digital Literacy project. But it isn’t the proper role of government to “Help Americans Build Online Skills.” Plenty of private institutions, including many nonprofits, already work to educate Americans about how to use the Internet. All these bureaus could and should be abolished.
The Commerce Department does perform some legitimate roles, such as the constitutionally-mandated functions of the Census Bureau and the Patent Office and the NTIA’s management of the government’s use of the broadcasting spectrum. Yet there is no reason all of these functions need to be bundled in a single, large Cabinet department. The above agencies should become independent - free from departmental bureaucracy.
Some other functions, like the weather forecasting job of NOAA and the laboratory roles of the National Institute of Standards and Technology are also valuable, but could easily be provided outside government. These functions should be privatized.
The Commerce Department has been accruing these powers for more than a century, since it was founded at the height of the Progressive era. Herbert Hoover, whose “do something” interventions into the economy exacerbated the Great Depression, made the Commerce Department what it is today. He tasked the department with solving various problems in which government had no business getting involved and thereby inventing corporate welfare.
Today, the Commerce Department is a pertinent example not just of big government growing bigger, but of how the political class governs us. In that respect, John Bryson is the perfect choice to head it. Despite having been touted as a “leading businessman,” his experience relates not to persuading people to buy goods he’s invented and produced, but in getting government to impose rules on competitors and provide large contracts or even monopolies to his companies. That is not commerce but something else entirely.
Congressional leaders should use this proposed appointment as an opportunity to begin a debate on the future role of the Commerce Department. Ideally, it should decide that John Bryson, if he is confirmed as secretary of commerce, should be the final person to hold that office.
Iain Murray heads the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.