WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has struggled to complete its economic team in the midst of the worst financial crisis to hit the country in seven decades.
The final Cabinet-level spot to be filled was commerce secretary, a selection that was delayed because Obama’s first two picks for the job – New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire – ended up withdrawing. By the time Obama’s third choice, former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke, took office on March 26, the administration was more than 2 months old.
Now that Locke is on the job, what sorts of challenges will he be facing? What’s in the commerce secretary’s job description, and what role will he play in trying to improve the nation’s economic fortunes?
Here are some questions and answers about the post.
Q. What does a commerce secretary do?
A. He oversees a sprawling agency that is often viewed as the Cabinet equivalent of the attic because of its hodgepodge of activities. For example: The Census Bureau is in charge of performing the once-every-decade census, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitors the waterways and the weather, and the Patent and Trademark Office keeps track of new inventions.
In all, the department oversees 12 different agencies that do things as diverse as tracking the economy through the production of economic reports, like the gross domestic product, and promoting U.S. exports and enforcing the country’s trade laws.
Q. When did all of those things get dumped into one department?
A. The department was created in 1903 – with an even broader agenda than it has today. At that time, it was the Department of Commerce and Labor, but the labor functions were transferred to a separate Cabinet agency in 1913.
Q. What will Locke’s responsibilities be in terms of helping deal with the current economic crisis?
A. While the Treasury secretary is considered the point person for dealing with the financial crisis, Locke will have a significant role to play. He is a member of the president’s National Economic Council, the group that coordinates administration economic policy.
As commerce secretary, his primary job will be promoting the fortunes of American businesses.
Q. How does he do that?
A. The commerce secretary organizes trade missions to take U.S. executives on overseas trips to sell their wares in foreign markets. He also oversees the department’s International Trade Administration, which has teams of experts in Washington and at embassies around the world whose job is to help American companies cut through red tape and boost exports.
The Commerce Department also plays a major role in enforcing U.S. trade laws. It has the power to impose economic sanctions if a foreign country is found to be selling products in this country at unfairly low prices, a practice known as dumping. It can also impose sanctions if it is determined that foreign governments are boosting exports by providing their manufacturers with subsidies that violate global trade rules.
Q. Does Locke plan to focus his efforts in these areas?
A. Yes. With the economy hemorrhaging jobs – especially in manufacturing, where the recession has cut into domestic demand and the spreading global downturn is harming U.S. export sales – Locke has pledged to enforce U.S. trade laws and do all he can to open foreign markets to American products.
As a child of Chinese immigrants and the nation’s first Chinese-American to win election as governor, Locke is held in high esteem in China, something that should help in dealing with the Chinese government. Over the past decade, China’s trade practices have received special attention from Washington given that the United States runs its biggest trade deficits with China.
Q. Will trade be the only area where Locke will be promoting economic recovery?
A. No. The $787 billion economic stimulus package included $7.9 billion that will be handled by the Commerce Department. The biggest chunk of that is $4.4 billion to accelerate the deployment of broadband technology into underserved parts of the country such as rural areas and impoverished urban neighborhoods.
Q. What has Locke said about his priorities?
A. In a recent interview in his office in the Herbert Hoover Building – named for a former commerce secretary – Locke said he understood the importance of trade after having served as governor of one of the most trade-dependent states in the country.
“Commerce will be very active in participating in the president’s economic recovery initiatives,” Locke said, “helping to promote the sale of American products and ideas to other countries.”