The ideological underpinnings of the U.S. Department of Commerce lay in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which says that the purpose of the Constitution is in part to "promote the general welfare" of this "more Perfect Union." The Department of Commerce (DoC) has thus viewed as its mission the promotion of the general welfare of the United States and its citizens. Since its founding in 1913 the DoC has sought to achieve this goal through a plethora of seemingly disparate activities—though all ultimately aimed at supporting commerce and thus the general welfare of America. No more succinct description of these multitudinous activities exists than the one found in the U.S. Government Manual: "The Department of Commerce encourages, serves, and promotes the Nation's international trade, economic growth, and technological advancement. The Department provides a wide variety of programs through the competitive free enterprise system. It offers assistance and information to increase America's competitiveness in the world economy; administers programs to prevent unfair foreign trade competition; provides social and economic statistics and analyses for business and government planners; provides research and support for increased use of scientific, engineering, and technological development; works to improve our understanding and benefits of the Earth's physical environment and oceanic resources; grants patents and registers trademarks; develops policies and conducts research on telecommunications; provides assistance to promote domestic economic development; and assists in the growth of minority businesses."
Even before the Constitution was adopted in 1787 there had been various efforts to bring together government and commercial interests for their mutual benefit. One such attempt was the Mount Vernon conference of 1785, which was a 13-point agreement between Virginia and Maryland that dealt with commerce on the shared waterways of the Potomac River. As the United States grew and prospered, both politically and commercially, so did the role of government expand. In 1798 the Navy Department was created; in 1829 the postmaster general joined the cabinet under President Andrew Jackson; in 1849 the Department of the Interior was established, as was the Department of Justice in 1870. In 1888 the Bureau of Labor became a separate department and the Department of Agriculture came into being in 1889. As the government continued to expand, so did pressure for it to establish some sort of "Department of Commerce and Industry." This pressure gained new impetus in the aftermath of the economic Panic of 1893 and the then newly formed National Association of Manufacturers.
Finally in 1903 Congress passed legislation creating the Department of Commerce and Labor and the bill was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt. In the process it downgraded the previously formed Department of Labor to the Bureau of Labor. The new department was initially responsible for ten areas of activity ranging from the Bureau of Census and Coast and Geodetic Survey to the Steamboat Inspection Service and Bureau of Standards. As the U.S. economy continued to expand, labor began pressuring the government for a return of its own department, but this time with cabinet status. On William Taft's last day as president, March 4, 1913, he signed legislation giving labor cabinet status and changing the Department of Labor and Commerce to the Department of Commerce. The following day, March 5, newly elected President Woodrow Wilson appointed William C. Redfield (1858-1932) as the first secretary of commerce. The new secretary oversaw the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Steamboat Inspection Service, and the Bureaus of Corporations, Census, Lighthouses, Standards, Navigation, Fisheries, and Foreign and Domestic Commerce. By 1998 the DoC had grown to be one of the government's largest and most diverse cabinet departments, with 33,000 employees and a $4.9 billion budget.
The secretary of commerce is a cabinet position and oversees all the functions and authorities assigned to the DoC. Offices under the secretary include the Business Liaison Office, the Consumer Affairs Office, and the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization. The latter functions as an advocate for guaranteeing that small businesses and businesses owned by women and minorities receive their maximum fair share of DoC contracts and subcontracts. The undersecretary for economic affairs advises the secretary and other government agencies and officials on microeconomic and macroeconomic trends. The undersecretary is also the administrator of the Economics and Statistics Administration and in that role supervises the Bureau of the Census and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The Bureau of the Census was established as a permanent office in 1902 to conduct a population census every ten years, a census of state and local governments and various commercial activities every five years, as well as monthly, quarterly, and annual surveys on a wide variety of subjects and activities. The Bureau of Economic Analysis is known as the "nation's economic accountant." The bureau attempts, through the integration and interpretation of economic data, to compile a comprehensive picture of the U.S. economy. The Bureau of Export Administration promotes and controls the export of U.S. goods and the Economic Development Administration targets federal resources to economically distressed areas and local areas in need of economic development.
The largest bureau within the DoC is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The mission of NOAA is to provide the DoC with an overall assessment of those environmental issues and environmental phenomena that affect the country and its economy. This is accomplished through the National Weather Service; the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; the National Marine Fisheries Service; the National Ocean Service; the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research; and the Office of NOAA Corps Operations. The latter is responsible for maintaining NOAA's fleet of ships and planes used in fulfillment of its mission.
Other DoC agencies having self-describing titles include the International Trade Administration, the Minority Business Development Agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Patent and Trademark Office.
The Office of Technology Policy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Technical Information Service fall under the purview of the DoC's Technology Administration.
[ Michael Knes ]
Greenberger, Robert S. "Commerce Department Admits It Erred in Matter of Hughes Report to China." Wall Street Journal, 9 July 1998, B7.
——. "U.S. Faces Probe of Role in Aiding China in Analyzing 1995 Rocket-Launch Crash." Wall Street Journal, 24 June 1998, A8.
Magnusson, Paul. "Commerce: Keep the Business, Lose the Sleaze." Business Week, 10 February 1997, 38.
Miller, William H. "Commerce Back on Track." Industry Week, 20 July 1998,46 + .
"The New Daley Machine." Economist, I February 1997, 34. U.S. Department of Commerce. From Lighthouse to Laserbeams: A History of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of the Secretary, 1995.
——. "U.S. Department of Commerce." Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1998. Available from www.doc.gov .
U.S. Government Manual. Washington: GPO, 1998.