Rick Perry has been getting a lot of criticism over his debate performance, but for the wrong thing.

At one point in last night’s debate, Perry proudly proclaimed that he would completely eliminate three federal agencies: education and commerce. If you’re looking for the third agency in that last, so is Rick Perry–which is why he’s been the butt of jokes all day today. People forget things. It happens to all of us. It’s embarrassing, but also not a big deal.

Let’s instead look at the two he wants to eliminate. Education I at least understand: it can be argued that everything the department of education does is better off handled at the state level. I disagree–I happen to believe that the Department of Education does a lot of very useful information gathering and coordination, even disregarding federal education regulations–but I at least understand the argument.

But Commerce? Seriously? Does Rick Perry even know what the Department of Commerce does? Well, let’s go through the list of Bureaus that operate within the Commerce Department, and see how many of them are a huge waste of taxpayer money:

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA): Measures the major indicators of economic performance for the country as a whole, and for specific industries, including GDP, GNP, Consumer Spending, Trade Balance, etc.

Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS): Every time Congress passes a law forbidding or regulating certain types of trade to a particular country, the BIS is responsible for writing the particular regulations, informing industry of those regulations, and helping to determine when those regulations have been violated. Maybe you don’t believe that the US should ever pass trade sanctions on any country at any time; but as long as we do, we’ll need the BIS or something like it.

US Census Bureau: Last I checked, the Constitution requires that the US conduct a census every ten years. Does Rick Perry want to get rid of that too?

Economic Development Administration (EDA): The EDA works with poor communities and regions around the country to help them rebuild themselves and create jobs in there areas. Some of this comes through giving out federally funded grants to particular communities for redevelopment projects; other times, they help communities develop plans. This seems not an unreasonable thing for the federal government to do, although I understand the libertarian argument against it.

International Trade Administration (ITA): Provide interpret trade law for businesses, enforce trade law, help identify cases where our trading partners have violated trade agreements, and work with industry groups to promote international markets for American goods. As long as we sign international trade agreements, something like the ITA is necessary.

Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA): Like the EDA, but focuses on minority owned businesses instead of poor communities. Similar arguments can be made both for and against it.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): NOAA funds information gathering about the weather, and coordinates it’s dissemination across the United States and the world. NOAA helps make sure that weather alerts and warnings are standardized and systematic. If government’s job is to protect its citizens, NOAA is a key component of that protection.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA): A new and fairly small group, they administer broadband bandwidth between government and private users and advice the administration on the development of new policies. Seems pretty straight-forward as a group that monitors usage of a public good, and solidly within government’s purview.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST): They are the group that keeps the official clock, that determines how much a pound actually weighs, and are the final arbiter on whether measuring equipment is properly calibrated. Again, an absolutely necessary function of government.

National Technical Information Service (NTIS): Basically a huge clearinghouse for technical and academic publications. They disseminate technical reports created by other government agencies, and maintain databases of technical and academic journals, as well as distributing government reports (like the census report). They are mostly funded by fees that they charge, and are mostly used by libraries.

US Patent and Trademark Office: They register and track all patents and trademarks.

So, Rick Perry: Do you think that the government should get out of the business of signing trade agreements? Do you think that any company that wants to ship weapons systems to potential American enemies ought to be able to do so? Do you think that government should not be in the business of maintaining weight and measurement standards or patents?

Because if you get rid of the Commerce Department, you destroy our ability to do all of those things. And if you want to keep those things, but get rid of the “Commerce Department”, then you’re really just wasting money on bureaucratic reorganizations.

So when you say “eliminate the Commerce Department”, which do you mean: a government that fails to do some of it’s most basic constitutionally mandated functions, or an expensive and pointless reorganization?

  One Response to “In Defense of Commerce”

  1. I don’t think we should eliminate the Commerce Department (although some of those subsections could go, in my mind). But for the sake of devils advocacy…

    While it would be costly to reorganize as a one time expense, to the extent that it eliminates redundancy in government, it may lead to a long term improvement in efficiency. Princeton Borough and Princeton Township just voted to consolidate. This will be a one time cost of ~$10 million as reorganization happens, and then save $3 million a year in redundant bureaucracy. Within 4 years it will be worth the investment.

    Let’s say you’re Perry, and you believe that some of these things can be eliminated, and many can be scaled down. At that point, having a department with all the bureaucracy that implies, may be extremely inefficient. Folding those remaining sub-departments into other departments could save money in the long run. I don’t know the budgets well enough to know if the calculations work out, but it isn’t necessarily as wasteful as it appears on the surface.

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