Action Continues on Fate of Commerce Department

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Publication date: 
8 September 1995

Since returning to work after Labor Day, Congress has focused a lot
of attention on the Department of Commerce.  Authorizing committees
in both the House and Senate debated the fate of the department,
while the Senate Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee marked up its
funding bill.

While the Budget Resolution passed this spring called for
abolishment of the Commerce Department, the House provided funding
for the department in its FY 1996 Commerce appropriations bill,
albeit at a reduced level (see FYI #103).  However, the department
is not out of danger in the House.  Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA)
has promised Republican freshman that a floor vote will be held on
some version of a proposal to abolish Commerce, either as a
stand-alone bill, or possibly as part of the reconciliation bill
Congress needs to pass this fall to provide details on how to reach
their Budget Resolution goals.

Proposals have been floated in both chambers to do away with the
department.  On September 6, the House Government Reform
Subcommittee on Management heard from Rep. Dick Chrysler (R-MI),
sponsor of H.R. 1756, a bill to abolish the department, followed by
testimony from Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.  While Chrysler
claimed his bill would save approximately $7.7 billion over five
years, Brown charged that this estimate contained errors and did
not include the costs associated with terminating or transferring
programs, or the cost of the next census.  Brown claimed that
Chrysler's proposal would actually cost taxpayers an additional
$1.542 billion.  Members of the subcommittee expressed mixed
feelings about the proposal.  Tom Davis (R-VA), argued that the
goal should be to save taxpayers money.  "We need to be sure it's
being done smartly," he said, and "I'm not sure I'm in total
agreement" with the bill's provisions.  Charles Bass (R-NH)
reported that he had "yet to receive any significant amount of
mail...from people who say they can't live without" the department.

Brown stated at the hearing, and reiterated at a Commerce
Department briefing later the same day, that Chrysler's bill
"demonstrates no real savings."  At the briefing he added that the
department has data "we're very confident in" that shows a net cost
to the taxpayer.  Brown also pointed out that the House Commerce
Appropriations bill "demonstrates that savings are possible without
dismembering the department," (although he criticized the
appropriations bill for its elimination of NIST's Advanced
Technology Program.)  He claimed that doing away with the
technology-assistance programs would "result in something
tantamount to unilateral disarmament" in global economic
competition.  If the Chrysler bill just transferred some of
Commerce's functions, Brown said, "someone help me understand how
that makes government work better?"  In his briefing, Brown
stressed comments made by subcommittee members about input from
constituents: "You're the ones who can deliver the message much
more effectively than we can."

Yesterday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee marked up S.
929, a Senate proposal to abolish the Commerce Department.  The
committee chairman, William Roth (R-DE), proposed a bill that would
first eliminate the Commerce Department, then establish a
bipartisan commission to look at downsizing the rest of the
Executive Branch.  Ranking Minority Member John Glenn (D-OH)
charged that Roth's bill was "going to eliminate a department, then
going to study whether we should have done it or not."  Carl Levin
(D-MI) compared it to saying "ready, fire, then aim."  Joseph
Lieberman (D-CT) supported Commerce's technology programs, saying
they were not a way for the private sector to "ride on the back of
government, [but] a way for government to ride on the back of the
private sector..." and to leverage private investment, particularly
in sectors like defense, "where the government used to pay it all
and can no longer afford to do so."  William Cohen from Maine, a
Republican, praised Secretary Brown and said that while he
supported bringing the bill to the Senate floor, he hoped to see
some changes.

Glenn offered an amendment to establish a commission without first
abolishing Commerce.  His amendment was voted down 6-8, with Roth
arguing that it is important to the public "that we take action"
now.  A number of additional Democratic amendments also failed, and
Roth's bill passed on a 5-3 vote.

Also yesterday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee responsible
for funding the Commerce Department marked up its FY 1996 bill.
The version offered by subcommittee chair Phil Gramm (R-TX), while
not abolishing the department, would have cut its programs
significantly.  However, full committee chairman Mark Hatfield
(R-OR), concerned about the bill's ability to pass his committee
and veto threats by President Clinton, proposed a substitute
version that restored $76 million for ATP, as well as funding for
the Economic Development Administration and other programs. 
Hatfield's alternate passed, with Gramm the only subcommittee
member voting against it.  The Commerce Appropriation bill is
scheduled to go to the full Appropriations Committee on September