History records why the U.S. Secretary of Commerce is one of the most anonymous Cabinet posts in the federal government.
From its initial days in 1903, the Commerce Department has been the launching pad for important tasks -- only to have those which became glamorous taken away.
The Commerce Department started regulation of broadcasting, but gave that up to the Federal Communications Commission in the 1930s. Ditto for aviation, given to a new Civil Areonautics Board.
Labor was separated into a new department as early as 1913 and, more recently, transportation functions of Commerce formed the core of a new Department of Transportation in the 1960s.
When Maurice Stans took over as President Nixon's secretary of Commerce in 1969, morale was low in the wake of losing transportation responsibilities. He vowed to restore Commerce as a vital force in government and occupants of the secretary's office ever since have been seeking the same goal with little success.
Filling this position once again is now a priority at the White House, following the decision by Secretary Juanita M. Kreps to resign for family reasons, at the end of this month.
This time, administration officials said yesterday, they want to find a business person with "clout" and name recognition. "A totally new face" is needed, a person who would send a signal to the business community similar to the signals sent to the cities when President Carter recently selected former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Because of this reported desire to convince business leaders that they would have a Commerce secretary with whom they could more readily relate, government sources said yesterday they do not expect Carter to offer the Kreps job to Under Secretary Luther Hodges Jr., son of a former Commerce secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Hodges formerly headed a bank in North Carolina but is not a well-known business leader.
Whomever is selected will inherit leadership of one of the true giants among federal departments -- more than a dozen bureaus, some 40,000 employes, a $3 billion annual budget, research laboratories.
One of the problems facing Commerce Department leadership is the absence of focus in a far-flung empire. Commerce takes the census, reports the weather, gathers important statistics about the nation's economy, runs a travel promotion service, the Maritime Administration, Bureau of Standards and Patent office.
Moreover, after much fighting within the Carter administration, Kreps was successful in winning for Commerce a major new task in expanded economic development and a wider role in trade policy.
At one point, some White House policymakers wanted to break up the Commerce Department altogether. Kreps was successful in blocking that impetus.
Kreps was not successful, however, in one of her other major goals -- making Commerce a major partner among agencies that set economic policy.
The first economist to head the Commerce Department, Kreps had admitted early in the administration that she faced a difficult task because of the "vaster mandate" of Commerce compared with Treasury Department, for example.
"We have a lot of animals on our ship, some of which may have climbed on board because they didn't have anywhere else to go . . . What we have, however, adds up not to a hodgepodge, but to potential threads of a common purpose," Kreps told an early Cabinet meeting.