The US Department of Commerce seldom grabs headlines or is the subject of stern congressional
rebukes. It does not find itself accused of being “weaponized” against political opponents.
Following the 2016 election, an article on Vox about the incoming power-players of the Trump
administration dismissed it as a “Cabinet backwater,” consisting of a “hodgepodge of agencies.”
The Commerce Department’s broad purpose is “to create the conditions for economic growth
and opportunity.” As its name suggests, the department plays an important role in both domestic
and international trade policy, including tariffs and even arms control. But mixed into its
“backwaters” are such workaday agencies as the National Weather Service, the Bureau of the
Census, and the US Patent and Trademark Office.
Still waters run deep. In 2020, the Commerce Department was the fourth most lobbied federal
office, behind only the departments of Treasury, Health & Human Services, and the White
House itself. It is comfortably ahead of big spenders like the departments of Defense and
Transportation, despite having a far smaller budget.
Its influence and profile are poised to grow. The trade war with China has given the Commerce
Department tremendous influence over important policy. The Trade Expansion Act of 1962
allows the Commerce Department to investigate the effect of imports on our
national security. Effectively, the department creates the groundwork for tariffs. Through its
Bureau of Industry and Security, Commerce regulates so-called “dual use” technologies, which
have potential military applications for foreign powers, another sore spot in the US-China
Then there are “Qualified Opportunity Zones” in the US, those neighborhoods which Commerce
can designate to receive special status that offers investors lucrative tax benefits just
for relocating business operations there. The decennial Census, the awarding of patents and
trademarks, telecommunications policies, space, and weather forecasting are all managed, at least
in part, by the Department of Commerce.
So, it is no wonder that Commerce is the fourth most lobbied federal office. It is no backwater –
but rather the confluence of many rich streams. And, because of that, it is an overlooked pool for