Last week’s surprise withdrawal of Governor Bill Richardson from consideration as President-elect Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce was a setback for the transition, but not altogether inconsistent with the position’s recent history. Commerce like the other large Cabinet Departments is not a single but a collection of government agencies with hugely different missions, among them the International Trade Administration, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Census Bureau. The Department of Commerce is a muddle and the Secretary of Commerce has long been among the top prizes for the president’s political supporters.

Historically, the position has gone to a leading figure in business, almost always with close political ties to the president. If presidential appointments follow some combination of appointee quality, political ideology, and the distribution of “spoils” – Commerce clearly weighs heavily toward the latter. Commerce Secretary is on average among one of the shortest serving cabinet secretaries – often less than 2 years, as our recent analysis suggests – and, with a few exceptions, Commerce appointees are among the shortest serving in the federal government. To illustrate the point, here are a few recent examples from a recent paper Patrick and wrote on the topic:

  • Current Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was chief executive of the Kellogg Company and a Republican donor.
  • Preceding Gutierrez, Secretary Donald Evans was an oil company executive who served as an appointee for Governor Bush in Texas. He now heads the committee overseeing the planned George W. Bush Presidential Library.
  • Clinton’s first Secretary of Commerce, former Democratic National Committee chair Ron Brown, served three years before his untimely 1996 death.
  • Facing a Republican Congress, Clinton recess appointed longtime adviser and U. S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor as the next Secretary. Less than a year later, at the beginning of Clinton’s second term, Kantor was replaced by Secretary Bill Daley.
  • Secretary Bill Daley is the son and brother of powerful Democratic Chicago mayors, Daley took office promising reduced political influence. He served as 1997 to 2000, resigning to become chairman for the presidential election campaign of Vice President Al Gore.
  • Daley was replaced by former Democratic Congressman Norman Mineta, who served the last six months of the Clinton administration.
  • Under George H. W. Bush, Robert Mosbacher served from January 1989 to January 1992, resigning to become the chairman of the President Bush’s reelection campaign.
  • Mosbacher was replaced by Secretary Barbara Franklin, a prominent executive and active Republican, who served during the administration’s final year.

This is not to say that any of these appointees were unqualified. Given the scope of the Commerce Department’s responsibilities and its broad mandate to support U.S. “commerce” – it’s difficult to imagine what qualities really are essential. All are certainly major figures – but they are a long way from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who served with distinction between 1921 and 1928, or even the Reagan-era Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, for whom the Baldridge Awards are named.

In announcing the Richardson pick, Obama sought to place Commerce at the center of a broader effort to reenergize the U.S. economy and improve American competitiveness. But, political churn in the Commerce Department’s top ranks has over time had very real consequences for the Department’s capacity to promote the president’s agenda. Looking at the Clinton Administration’s frustrations with Commerce, this June 1993 National Journal piece “Out of the Backwarter?” illustrates:

The Commerce Department is the logical lead agency to develop the comprehensive U.S. competitiveness policy that the Clinton Administration advocates. With expertise in industry and in international matters, Commerce has the bureaucratic wherewithal to be a central player on technology and trade initiatives. But given the department’s long history of idling in policy backwaters, there are questions about its ability to rise to the challenge.

In the past, Commerce’s efforts to be a bureaucratic force in Washington policy-making circles has been hampered by its bureaucratic sprawl. With more than half its budget and personnel, not to mention a healthy chunk of the Secretary’s time, eaten up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census Bureau, critics have long argued that it is impossible for the department to focus on breaking policy issues….

Before the inauguration, transition officials rejected expert advice that they spin off some of Commerce’s disparate functions as independent agencies. The new White House team did not want to expend its limited political capital trying to force reorganization through a turf-conscious Congress. Instead, in response to congressional advice, the Administration hopes to use Commerce’s patronage-rich appendages as leverage in its requests for new money for its competitiveness initiatives.

Like a number of other Cabinet-level agencies, Commerce has been plagued with difficulties in filling top-level positions. There was considerable excitement when John A. Rollwagen, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Cray Research Inc., the world’s largest supplier of supercomputers, was nominated as deputy secretary. Rollwagen brought aboard Kent H. Hughes, the widely respected former head of the private Council on Competitiveness, to be his associate deputy secretary. But then Rollwagen withdrew from consideration when he became entangled in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Cray.

Several candidates for undersecretary for international trade turned down that post; a nominee wasn’t named until June 15. White House approval of other nominees has been interminably slow. As a result, career officials have represented Commerce in interagency efforts to develop policy toward Japan and in other competitiveness initiatives, limiting the Department’s clout.

A potentially more intractable problem is the department’s history as a dumping ground for well-connected political appointees who often lack ambition and skill. As other Cabinet-level agencies fill up, the pressure is growing on Commerce to find room for Friends of Bill. Commerce officials who are trying to transform the department from within worry that such demands will dangerously undercut their mission.

Source: Bruce Stokes. 1993. “Out of the Backwater?” National Journal. June 19: Vol. 25, No. 25; Pg. 1501