Uncertain Future for the Commerce Department

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Publication date: 
27 July 1995
Number: 
108

This has been a busy week on Capitol Hill for the U.S. Department
of Commerce.  Three committee hearings have been held on
legislation to dismantle the department, and the House finished its
consideration of the department's FY 1996 appropriation.  What has
emerged is a very uncertain future for the Commerce Department.

Earlier this week, two House subcommittees held a joint hearing on
H.R. 1756, which would dismantle the Commerce Department.
Secretary Ronald Brown left no doubt about how he viewed this
legislation, saying, "There's been a lot of hot rhetoric about this
issue, and I don't know if it is about saving money or about
government restructuring to make government more effective, or
trophy hunting."

Senator William Roth (R-DE) is the chairman of the Senate Committee
on Governmental Affairs, and will be one of the architects of the
department's fate.  At a hearing on Tuesday on S. 929, he said
dismantling Commerce is "not a new idea, but an idea whose time has
come."  Roth sponsored similar legislation in 1967.  Ranking
Minority Member John Glenn (D-OH), while not a supporter of the
bill, did say, "Commerce is clearly in need of some kind of
reorganization."

Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-KS) was the hearing's lead
witness.  Dole spoke for only a few minutes, but said of the
department's elimination that it is "certainly one we ought to
start looking at."  He said his decision to dismantle the
department was not a difficult one for him to make, adding "we can
no longer afford" Commerce.

Roth, while strongly supportive of remaking Commerce, said he
"frankly disagrees" with S. 929 since it would splinter the
department's activities.  He favors consolidation of government
activities, and is especially concerned about a viable federal
trade function.  Roth asked Brown if he could support a
consolidation of the department's activities.  Brown replied, "we
are open," although he quickly linked this to a government-wide
reorganization.

Yesterday, the House finished its consideration of H.R. 2076, the
Commerce, Justice, and State Appropriations Bill for FY 1996.  No
changes were made affecting NIST programs, and the department
itself was left intact with approximately 83% of its current year
budget.  The House rejected by a vote of 204-yes to 223-no an
amendment offered by Alan Mollohan (D-WV) to lift the prohibition
on FY 1996 money being used for new projects under the Advanced
Technology Program. 

Despite House approval of an FY 1996 budget for Commerce, the
department is by no means out of the woods.  Republican freshmen
threatened to defeat the appropriations bill unless they received
assurances that Commerce would be dismantled.  House Speaker Newt
Gingrich (R-GA) and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) signed a
letter pledging "our firm commitment to incorporate the dismantling
legislation" into the budget reconciliation bill later this year.
Reconciliation bills usually pertain to revenue and entitlement
programs, but can serve as a vehicle for other legislation.  In
remarks on the floor, Rep. Sam Brownback (R-KS) declared, "I intend
to vote for the final passage of the appropriations bill because
this is the beginning of the end of the Department of Commerce."
He said that the appropriations bill was not the place to eliminate
the department, but added that authorizing committees were moving
ahead with legislation to eliminate, privatize, and consolidate the
department's activities.  Rep. Dick Chrysler (R-MI), sponsor of
H.R. 1756, echoed these remarks, saying, "I too intend to vote for
final passage of this appropriations bill. ...we have received
assurances from the speaker and the majority leader that the
Department of Commerce will be dismantled as part of this year's
budget reconciliation package."

President Clinton has declared his intention to veto any
legislation which dismantles the Commerce Department.  How this
will be resolved is anyone's guess.