If the head of a department can't stay awake during meetings, is there any good reason to keep his department around? That's the question we should be asking in the wake of Politico's exposé of a deeply dysfunctional U.S. Department of Commerce.
The problems reportedly start at the top, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. "He's sort of seen as kind of irrelevant," one unnamed advisor told Politico. "The morale is very low there because there's not a lot of confidence in the secretary." According to the source, routine meetings with senior staff have largely ceased because of Ross's tendency to fall asleep during them.
This same lack of stamina, Politico says, is why Ross has been reticent to testify before Congress, preferring to send his staff instead. This has reportedly angered lawmakers, who have interpreted it as disrespectful.
A Commerce Department spokesperson pushed back against much of Politico's reporting, claiming that Ross is a "tireless" cabinet secretary. But even if this organ of the government is run with military-like efficiency, there's still a good case for getting rid of it altogether.
Similar to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Commerce Department is a hodgepodge of agencies, some important, others less so. A few are actively harmful.
Much of the department's activities involve funneling federal subsidies to private business projects. Its Economic Development Agency (EDA) has given out grants from the wasteful ($35 million for a money-losing convention center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa) to the absurd ($1.7 million for a venue in New York that plans to host performances of dead comedians via holograms).
"In the four decades since its creation, EDA has funded professional football practice facilities, model pyramids, wine tasting rooms, and other clearly wasteful projects," reads a 2012 report from the pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute. The report also criticizes the EDA for measuring projects' success by the number of jobs created (as opposed to value created) or by the amount of public investment a project attracts (which has seen the EDA give out awards to local governments for raising taxes).
The Commerce Department also enforces protectionist trade policies through its International Trade Administration (ITA). Domestic industries can petition the ITA to investigate whether foreign companies are engaged in "dumping" (selling at below-market prices) in the U.S. market or are receiving export subsidies from their home governments.
Should both the ITA and the U.S. Trade Commission—an independent body outside of the Commerce Department—find evidence of these unfair trade practices, the Commerce Department can order anti-dumping and countervailing duties to be placed on foreign imports.
The ITA has long been criticized for being biased in favor of U.S. industries, using opaque math to justify duties on foreign competitors. The agency has been on the front lines of the recent trade war with China, finding that everything from Chinese steel to Chinese quartz allegedly warrants anti-dumping duties. And that's just from July.
Not everything the Commerce Department does in tied to crony capitalism. It also administers the Census and is in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But as with the Department of Homeland Security, we'd be better off if the Commerce Department were disbanded and its most objectionable agencies abolished. The more useful branches can be spun off as independent agencies or folded into other, less dysfunctional departments.
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