The Hoover-Brown legacy Mickey Kantor to Commerce: Ron Brown and Herbert Hoover shared common goals.

April 13, 1996

RON BROWN would have enjoyed the irony of it all. His death on a war-recovery mission to Bosnia and Croatia last week effectively ends Republican efforts to abolish his Department of Commerce and scatter most of its functions to oblivion or other agencies. Actually, the House proposal, a part of Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," was already making little headway in the Senate, where it encountered a reality check among senior Republicans.

What some of the young Turks in the GOP forgot or never knew was that the Department of Commerce was a creation of two Republican presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and that it achieved its greatest influence in the 1920s under a secretary who became president, Republican Herbert Hoover. "The department seemed a dynamo under Hoover," wrote one of his biographers.

For many years after that, the Commerce Department became a backwater despite its grandiose headquarters in Washington. Some of Franklin Roosevelt's New Dealers, like their Republican counterparts in the Gingrich era, were all for eliminating it. Twenty-one of its 53 trade offices abroad were closed. Decades later it lost its transportation functions to a new Cabinet-level department. Its secretaries were low on the power totem pole.

The "dynamo" image returned under Mr. Brown, whose objective from Day One was not the survival of his department but its greater influence in economic policy. He became a favorite of big business executives who believed government should work closely with the private sector to promote U.S. world exports.

With Mr. Brown's passing, President Clinton has selected his special trade representative, Mickey Kantor, as the next Commerce secretary. It is a wise choice, praised even by likely Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.

This might be the moment to consider consolidating Mr. Kantor's old office, which has Cabinet rank, with the Commerce Department. It could be called the Department of Commerce and Trade, thus putting the emphasis squarely where it belongs.

The important thing is to have a well-coordinated foreign trade operation that can help create millions of jobs and reduce a trade deficit that has made the Uniteds States the world's largest debtor nation. Herbert Hoover would agree. So would Ron Brown.

Pub Date: 4/13/96

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