By Dean Kleckner
I have a message for President Obama: Don’t mess with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Earlier this month, the President spoke of the need to improve the government’s performance--and he amplified this theme on Tuesday night, in his State of the Union address.
"The executive branch also needs to change," he said. "Too often, it’s inefficient, outdated, and remote."
Then he continued: "That’s why I’ve asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people."
It sounds like a great idea. Yet the details of the President’s recent proposal to reform one area of the federal government contain a serious defect that would undermine the very principles he applauds.
President Obama wants to merge the core functions of the Department of Commerce with six agencies: the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Trade and Development Agency, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Bureaucratic reorganization is often an excellent idea, especially if it eliminates wasteful spending by wiping out redundancy. The White House claims that this particular consolidation would reduce the federal payroll by as many as 2,000 jobs, saving taxpayers $3 billion in ten years. That’s probably a stretch, but even a fraction of this amount is a goal worth pursuing.
So much of President Obama’s proposal has merit.
Yet it also contains a fatal flaw. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) works very well right now. It should remain independent, reporting directly to the president.
USTR is a model agency for government, operating at an astonishing level of efficiency. I’ve seen it around the world. They do so much with so few. Only about 200 people work for it, meaning that there are more than 10,000 federal workers for every employee of the trade office.
At the same time, USTR delivers big benefits by negotiating trade deals with other countries that help Americans sell goods and services to foreign customers.
During his State of the Union speech, President Obama singled out the accomplishments of USTR. "We’re also making it easier for American businesses to sell products all over the world," he said. "Soon, there will be millions of new customers for American goods in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. Soon, there will be new cars on the streets of Seoul imported from Detroit, and Toledo, and Chicago."
He might have added that American farmers and ranchers also will enjoy new opportunities to sell what they grow and raise.
These trade pacts will create thousands of jobs on farms and in factories. They would not exist without USTR. There probably is not a government agency that achieves better results with fewer resources.
Given that USTR does so much so well, we shouldn’t try to change the way it works. Stuffing it inside the Department of Commerce would downgrade its status, eliminate its independence, and thwart its objectives.
The United States needs to have a trade diplomat who possesses genuine stature, rather than a spot on an organization chart that puts the office below the head of a third-tier cabinet secretary. Not only should the trade chief speak directly for the president, but foreign leaders must understand that the Oval Office is just a phone call away. Otherwise, they won’t engage in serious trade negotiations with us.
What’s more, the Department of Commerce is home to a bundle of bureaucracies, from the Census Bureau to the National Weather Service. The tiny trade office would become lost amid the department’s multitude of agencies and purposes. Parts of the department aren’t even oriented toward expanding trade, but rather toward protecting industries from foreign competition.
Our trade negotiators should have a single focus on expanding U.S. economic opportunities, without having to worry about the distractions of petty turf wars.
So President Obama should move forward with his proposed reorganization of the Department of Commerce and several related agencies--but he should leave USTR alone, in recognition of its unique contributions to our prosperity.