During the State of the Union, President Obama promoted the well-worn strategy of “reinventing government.” Virtually every President says they will do this at one time or another. Some, like Bill Clinton, actually follow through to some extent. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that some of the government’s operations are duplicative – although the example the President gave in the speech, about freshwater and saltwater salmon, wasn’t exactly true, and speaks to a larger point about our complex world and the difficulty of imposing a rigid hierarchy on it.

I think we’re seeing that in the White House’s early efforts at reorganization. The first thought was that the Commerce Department would potentially go out the door – which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. In particular, the presence of NOAA at Commerce, which was kind of the jumping-off point for the salmon joke, makes no sense – it should just be sent to Interior. But the first set of concrete policy proposals wouldn’t necessarily eliminate Commerce, but actually bolster it:

White House officials in recent months seriously considered a plan to combine parts of the Commerce Department with other trade and export agencies, and to have the president announce the proposal during the speech, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

They pulled back amid unsettled questions over which agencies would fold into the new department, among other details. But trade, exports and boosting competitiveness remain the focus of White House thinking on a reorganization plan, a White House official said […]

It is unknown what the administration will propose, but a report by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank with ties to the White House, has suggested creating a Department of Business, Trade and Technology that would include much of the Commerce Department.

The report suggested folding in—among others—the Office of the United State Trade Representative; the Small Business Administration; and the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which finances U.S. exports.

Also included could be: the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which provides political risk insurance to U.S. firms that invest abroad; and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, which provides foreign aid aimed at fostering the private sector and trade.

This would turn Commerce from a backwater to a pretty powerful department, without its schizophrenic nature. But you could just as easily move Commerce’s trade-based functions to the Department of Labor, which after all is entirely focused on jobs, and make the combinations there, with NOAA moving off to Interior and the Census as a separate agency (or part of Labor).

I suppose if you want to keep Commerce you ought to breathe some actual life into it. But there are serious differences between putting the trade and business-based agencies at the Labor Department and creating a separate business-based department. You can obviously see the retooled Commerce Department becoming a habitat for ex-CEOs to offer preferred trade and tax deals to businesses, while combining it with Labor forces a focus on jobs rather than business.

Jeffrey Zients, the Administration’s chief performance officer, will lead this project.

David Dayen

David Dayen