Thoughts on the US. Department of Trade (and a new WCIT contest!)

Lots of news coverage and reaction today on President Obama’s proposal to merge six agencies into a new “United States Department of Trade” – the U.S. Department of Commerce’s core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

And, if you’re anything like me, your first reaction was, “Hey, I wonder what WCIT thinks about this proposal? I should race right over to the State of Trade blog and find out!” You know full well that the State of Trade blog hates to disappoint, so we wanted to be sure to have our first blush reaction to the proposal for your immediate gratification.

1) Didn’t Obama Propose This Last Year? – In last year’s State of the Union, the President said the following:

We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV. There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports…In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote –- and we will push to get it passed. (emphasis added)

Now, sure, technically he didn’t say “I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote THIS YEAR” and technically it’s still before this year’s Stat of the Union, so I guess it counts. Anyway, interesting (at least to me) to note that this proposal has some history behind it. And this picture alone is worth all the time and energy they put into justifying the decision.

2) Trade Sure Is Important! – Before we get into the politics or the policy implications – good and bad – of this proposal, you have to think that it’s a pretty nice acknowledgement for those of us in the trade community that our work matters. I mean, in that same State of the Union, the President pointed out that there are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy, but you don’t see him proposing a new Department of Housing…What’s that? There already is a Department of Housing and Urban Development? Well fine, but  you get my point…those five agencies (including HUD) that deal with housing are still separate, but it’s the trade agencies that are getting the proposal to be elevated into their own Cabinet-level agency. It’s clear to all of us that the best way to grow the US economy is to target the 95% of consumers overseas, and a major, Cabinet-level focus on this effort is a recognition of that fact.

3) This Proposal Is Far From a Sure Thing…or Necessarily a Good Thing – The cynical folks of the world dismiss this proposal as election year politics, the creation of an issue that the President can run against Congress on (i.e. – “I proposed something that would save money, reduce government and help business, but this disfunctional Congress isn’t even willing to do that!”). Other have legitimate concerns, like will this new agency be able to do as much or more for businesses or does it make sense to have your trade negotiator to be the arbiter of trade law and enforcement. And then there’s the point that combining agencies doesn’t necessarily increase efficiency, unless there is real structural reform along with it. I don’t mean for this to be a bibliography of other people’s analysis, but there are the important questions that will have to be answered before folks can judge whether the nuts & bolts actually make sense. But again, like I mentioned in #2, the fact that there is going to be a high profile federal dialogue between Congress and the Administration on how to most effectively increase trade is a good thing in and of itself to some extent.

4) NEW WCIT CONTEST – And now to that contest I mentioned in this blog post’s title. The President didn’t say that he’d call it the U.S. Department of Trade, and probably won’t…especially since USDOT is already taken by the Transportation Department. So I’m looking to you, loyal State of Trade blog readers, to suggest names in the comment section of this post. Make it snappy, cool sounding, and make sure it sounds good for a new Secretary’s title, like “Secretary of Exports” or “Secretary of International Business”. Not only will the winner will get two free passes to the 2012 Washington Trade Conference, but I will personally pass the winning suggestion to the Administration when I’m in DC in two weeks.

Looking forward to seeing your clever suggestions! And, of course, check back on the State of Trade blog to see the latest news and analysis on this proposal.

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