The Commerce Department moved much closer to extinction Friday as House GOP leaders agreed to include a provision calling for its demise in the massive budget measure scheduled for a floor vote later this month.
In a bold display of partisan determination, freshmen Republicans in the House threatened to vote against their party's budget reconciliation bills if it lacked plans to dismantle Commerce--one of several Cabinet departments originally targeted for elimination by GOP lawmakers.
Republican leaders acceded to the demand, creating a potentially insurmountable obstacle for defenders of the department: Under House rules, the budget reconciliation measure must be accepted or rejected in its entirety, and is not subject to amendment. Lawmakers who want to save the department would therefore have to vote against the entire bill. President Clinton opposes the plan but has not said whether he would veto it.
The Senate has passed a similar bill through committee but it is not yet known whether it will be included in that chamber's the budget reconciliation package or voted on separately. The department's assorted functions include foreign trade, national weather tracking, statistical studies and the stimulation of home-grown high-tech and minority businesses.
As several House GOP freshmen gathered outside the Capitol to announce their victory, they greeted each other with broad smiles and such exclamations as, "This is a great day for America!"
"It's a testament to the resolve of this Congress, the freshmen class, and the Republican leadership that we have followed through on our commitment to truly change the way Washington does business," declared freshman Rep. Dick Chrysler (R-Mich.), who spearheaded the drive to kill Commerce.
Freshmen Republicans came to town with visions of Cabinet departments dropping left and right in the wake of their zeal for downsizing the federal government.
The departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Education, Energy and Commerce topped their list. As their first legislative year nears the end, hopes of chopping HUD, Education and Energy have been dashed by fierce counterattacks by the White House and advocates--Republican and Democratic--of those departments in Congress.
But the best efforts of Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and business, technical and weather forecasting interests have not been able to save his department.
Brown called the freshmen's efforts "political trophy hunting at its worst" and argued that GOP plans to eliminate some Commerce functions outright but transfer many others to existing federal agencies would actually cost the government money and create new bureaucracies.
In a harshly worded statement Friday, Brown accused the Republican leadership of "capitulating to the extremists in their party."
"It is bad policy, bad economics, bad for American business and bad for American workers," Brown said.
House Republicans said their plan for abolishing the department, which has a $4.2-billion budget, would save between $6 billion and $8 billion over the next seven years.
Among other tasks, Commerce promotes the nation's trade overseas and administers programs to prevent unfair trade competition. "This plan ignores the reality of the global marketplace and puts America's economic future at risk," Brown said.
Brown argues that those figures do not include the added costs of transferring and continuing the various Commerce services that would survive. But because the latest GOP plan is new, Brown did not yet have specific numbers to counter the estimates. Republicans contend their figures include all costs.
They say the savings result from terminating the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration, the Technology Administration, the Economic Development Administration and the Minority Business Development Administration, eliminating 34 programs.
But because many other Commerce functions would be dealt out to other agencies, much of the current spending would continue, including:
* The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service. That office accounts for 40% of the department's budget.
* The National Institute for Standards and Technology would be transferred to a new independent agency called the National Institute for Science and Technology.
* Federal trade functions would be consolidated under an expanded Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
* The Bureau of the Census would move to the White House Office of Management and Budget for six months and would later become part of the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics--unless a proposed government statistics agency is created by then. The Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis would also become part of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
* The Patent and Trademark Office would be turned into a fee-funded government corporation.