Commercial Break

Will Judd Gregg destroy the Commerce Department in order to save it?

Picking a secretary of commerce isn’t complicated. The president usually wants a close friend or business ally. He almost always chooses someone from the same party. And he would prefer someone who has not voted to abolish the Department of Commerce.

Sen. Judd Gregg, whom President Obama named as his nominee Tuesday, fits none of these criteria. He does not know Obama beyond the occasional hello. He is a fiscally conservative Republican from New Hampshire. And in 1995 he voted to kill the department he will now lead.

All of which makes him a superb choice. From a political perspective, Obama gets to put another bipartisan notch in his belt—he’s the third non-Democratic Cabinet nominee, in addition to Ray LaHood for Transportation and Robert Gates for Defense. Plus, he paves the way for a more philosophically attuned, if not Democratic, senator from New Hampshire and a possible political ally later.

From a policy standpoint, the appointment may make even more sense. In Gregg, Obama gets a guy who understands economic issues (he’s currently the ranking Republican on the budget committee) and will likely rein in spending in his own agency. The commerce secretary must also play well with others, which Gregg apparently does (although perhaps not quite as well as Bill Richardson, who withdrew his name from the running in January). Says Barbara Franklin, a former commerce secretary under President George H.W. Bush: “He’s a person who has always worked across the aisle on the Hill.”

The job also requires superior management skills, since the secretary is responsible for overseeing the department’s patchwork of sub-offices. “If Judd Gregg is not a managerial type of guy, then he needs a managerially inclined deputy,” says Franklin. An official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce described Gregg as “not flashy, but he is one of the smartest members of the Senate and does not suffer fools gladly.” Let’s hope so: One of Gregg’s first tasks will be shepherding the transition from analog to digital television—a logistical nightmare for which Obama is trying to extend the deadline.

Despite the job’s reputation as a patronage gig, it’s not particularly ideological. The secretary’s main task is to promote U.S. business interests and talk up American exports in other countries. Nor are the sub-offices subject to much partisanship. The secretary oversees the International Trade Administration, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the weather service. It’s hard to read the weather in a partisan way. In that respect, Gregg probably won’t be hugely different from Richardson. “I bet in terms of broader philosophies, there’s not much difference,” says Mickey Kantor, commerce secretary under President Clinton. As a result, Obama gets credit for appointing a Republican without having to deal with the policy consequences of appointing a Republican.

There is still room for disagreement. (One of the areas they disagree on, Obama jokingly noted in Tuesday’s press conference, is “who should have won the election.”) The Cato Institute approvingly calls Gregg a “free trader” for consistently voting against trade barriers and trade subsidies. Gregg voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, whereas Obama opposed it. On the other hand, Obama supported the Peru Free Trade Act, which many fellow Democrats opposed. During the campaign, Obama promised to “renegotiate” NAFTA—a sentiment Gregg’s surely disagreed with. But in practice, Obama knows that was an overstatement, and Gregg must have signed on for revising labor and environmental standards before accepting the job.

There could also be drama over the 2010 Census. In the past, Democrats and Republicans have battled over whether to use sampling, which favors Dems because they tend to increase the count in urban areas, or headcounts, which favor Republicans since they tend to undercount minorities. Even then, however, it would be difficult for Gregg to put on his Republican hat without creating a firestorm.

Finally, there is Gregg’s vote to abolish the Commerce Department. At the time, Congress was voting on the 1996 budget. A representative from Michigan added an amendment that would balance the budget faster by killing the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Education, Commerce, and Energy—an absurdity, but also an attempt to signal to Democrats that balancing the budget would require cutbacks. Every Republican senator voted for it, plus a few Democrats. In a department with as many moving parts as Commerce, a conservative instinct to streamline could be a positive.

Now let’s see if he knows how to file his taxes correctly.