Saturday :: Feb 14, 2009

Changing Meaningless to Meaningful


by eriposte

Yesterday, I wrote about the post of Commerce Secretary, arguing that Big Tent Democrat was wrong in claiming that the "the Commerce Secretary is a meaningless post". BTD responded in the comments saying:

You and one of your commenters seem not to have understood what I wrote - I did not say the Commerce Dept was meaningless (well, it is, but what the agencies within the Commerce Dept do is the opposite of meaningless, but they could be in any other department without any appreciable change) - I said WHO the Commerce Secretary is is menaingless and there is nothing in your post that in any way addreses my point.

To make it clearer, nothing that happens in the Commerce Dept is effected by who is called the Commerce Secretary. It is THAt JOB that is meaningless.

I submit that anyone who thinks otherwise has no understanding of how the agencies within the Commerce Dept are actually run. HINT - The Commerce Secretary has little to nothing to do with it.

the Commerce Secretary cuts ribbons, give speeches and basically cheerleads the Administration, It is for that reason that someone like Penny Pritzker, or Bill Richardson or even Judd Gregg would be accepted in the post - becuase it has no power or responsibility.

you did not understand my point and I would appreciate it if you addressed my actual argument in an update to this post.

Actually, BTD had not provided this nuanced interpretation of his comment in his original post, but now that he has, here is my response.

First, there is absolutely nothing that requires the present and the future to be the same as the past. Even if we were to assume, solely for the sake of argument, that the Commerce Secretary post was mostly meaningless or irrelevant in the past, there is absolutely no reason to presume that it will (or should) remain meaningless or irrelevant in the future. The role of the First Lady was by and large a ceremonial one until Hillary Clinton became one. The role of the Vice President was also not particularly noteworthy until Al Gore (in a positive way) and then Dick Cheney (in an extraordinarily negative way) changed that role.

Second, we just emerged from a change election. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change Government for the better. There is no reason why we should keep invoking the status quo of the past in this setting. To cite just one example, the role of the NSC and the National Security Advisor is evidently undergoing a major change under President Obama and NSA James Jones, through an expansion of its membership and by "increasing its authority to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international and domestic issues". Given the enormous importance of the work done by the many bureaus that are currently part of the Commerce Department, there is really no excuse to not use this opportunity to make the Commerce Secretary's role more value-add and the Department's role more prominent in setting sound public policy.

Third, we all know that Tom Ridge, as the first head of the Department of Homeland Security under George Bush, was largely useless. His successor Michael Chertoff did worse. He was partly behind the appointment of then-FEMA chief Michael Brown and horribly mismanaged the government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina, even ignoring warnings and protocol. One of the biggest lessons from Katrina was that if you want good and competent government, it is usually not possible if the person at the top is not good or competent to lead the government agency. Given his voting history, Judd Gregg might very well have caused damage within the Commerce Department by trying to force right-wing ideology over sound policy in the Department's many bureaus. We might not believe the reasons Judd Gregg gave to explain his withdrawal but it was clear from day one that the issue of the 2010 census was going to be a controversial one given Gregg's and President Obama's ideological leanings. The Census Bureau is under the Department of Commerce and it would have been embarrassing and troubling for the President to directly intervene and manage the Census Bureau if Gregg wanted to take the bureau in a different direction. The discussions around the census made it clear that the person who sits at the top of the Commerce Department matters.

Finally, installing a "meaningless" figurehead at a Cabinet level department simply using the excuse of history is a repudiation of the principles of good governance and good government. If progressives want people to respect the role and value of government, we need to urge our elected representatives to act as if good and competent government matters. If a government post was truly meaningless in the past, the solution to that is not to keep postulating that it is meaningless. The solution is to either ask for an elimination of the post (I certainly don't want my taxpayer dollars to pay salaries for meaningless people) or advocate for making the post much more meaningful so that taxpayers get a return on the taxes they pay (which is what I am doing).

eriposte :: 7:57 AM :: Comments (9) :: Digg It!