You wondered, perhaps, about that long, rasping noise that came last week from the eight-acre mountain of stone and cement at 14th and Pennsylvania.

It was a collective sigh of relief from the Department of Commerce, which received the presidential assurances it wanted. It's not going to be abolished, President Carter said.

Carter still hasn't made up his mind about how - and if - he will reconfigure the 75-year-old department. But at least abolition, one of the early options, is out.

Yet a question persists: would Commerce, with its 41,000 employes, its $3 billion budget and its kaleidoscope of programs, really he missed if Carter's Magic Eraser struck?

The Office of Management and Budget's reorganization experts want to take away the department's economic development activity, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration.

They are expected to recommend soon that the department be reshaped into one aimed at development of trade and technology, adopting the Export-Import

Bank and the president's special trade representative. Commerce already runs foreign trade stimulation programs.

Commerce today is the Cabinet's equivalent of your Aunt Flo's attic - a jumble of items that no longer fit into a steamlined decor, yet are too valuable to do away with.

Business group tend to give Secretary Juanita Kreps better marks than many of her recent predecessors for adminstering the department, but even that is qualified.

Robert S. Strauss, the president's special trade representative, has been quoted by Kreps associates as saying she and her aides have taken a third-rate department and made it second-rate.

"The department," said Assistant Secretary Jerry J. Jasinowski, "has been a backwater of the federal bureaucracy. . . It has tended to be a place where you put things when you didn't know what else to do with them."

There's no disputing that. Why, even the fancy aquarium in the basement of the main Commerce building belongs to another agency - the Interior Department.

If a department can't call its basement its own, little wonder, then, that most presidents have been inclined to name secretaries who were famous for something else, usually their political acumen.

The top-level incumbents at Commerce understand all of that, but, as one might expect, they were a mite displeased with the suggestion that their department ought to be disbanded.

Rather than seeing its ecomimic development and trade promotion roles transfereed elsewhere, Kreps and her subalterns have suggested to OMB that these roles be strengthened inside Commerce. They will probably lose on economic development and win on trade promotion. For its part, OMB is a little peeved that Commerce is beating the bushes for itself.

Actually, Kreps said in an interview, the department has reached a point that it is ready and able to assume those stronger roles.

She said - and the record tends to bear her out - that Commerce has been far more active in the past two years in offering help to the business community and is getting its own agencies thinking and working together.

"Through an accident of history, the country is at a point where reliance on the private sector is more in the forefront of our minds. . . the generation of jobs in the private sector, the reductions of federal activities that add to deficits and taxes," she said.

The logical place for focusing private-sector support, Kreps added is the Department of Commerce.

"We are in a good position of having done well and having built hbetween the agencies here. The question of how we could better do that is the reorganization question," she said. "Trade is the area where we most need to move ahead, and linked with that is the domestic economic and development, the stimulation of jobs and industry."

Another school of thought, which includes business and congressional people, feels it doesn't much matter if Commerce goes by the boards. They'd like to see more coherence in the treatment of business - no matter what department it is in.

"Business would favor continuation of the department as it is, unless it was clear we would have improvement with reorganization. It's weak, but it's the only one in town," said Dr. Jack Carlson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"It is a legitimate role of government to look at producers as an entity. There should be advocacy for them, just as there is for labor or farmers. But we have to do better organizationally on trade than we have. There is no place in government where all the pieces come together," Carlson said.

Added a top staff aide at the Senate Commerce Committee: "It's a do-nothing catch-all - an amorphous blob of 11 or 12 programs. There's a section of the business - not in Washington - which thinks the department is here to protect it. They hurrah when a bright new secretary is named. But it means nothing. It's amazing you could abolish it and get so little uproar."

Indeed, when Big Business comes to town with a problem, it often as not turns to Congress, the White House or the Treasury for help. Exporters talk to Treasury and the State Department. Small businessmen turn to. . . the Small Business Administration.

One of the reasons is that the Department of Commerce is that mostly in name. Its programs range from promoting minority business, handing out sewer grants and issuing patents to taking the census, predicting the weather and studying the oceans.

If you think that the census and the oceans are unrelated, you are right. It is just that Congress, in creating programs over the year, would dump them into Commerce when no target appeared.

Since its creation in 1903, the department has spun off all kinds of activities. Aviation and communications regulation began there. So did the Department of Labor, which became separate in 1913. The Bureau of Public Roads, the Coast Guard, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Community Relations Service, all called Commerce home before moving on.

Major components today include the Bureau of the Census, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Economic Development Adminstration, the Industry and Trade Administration, the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, the U.S. Travel Service, the National Oceanic and Stmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Bureau of Standards, and the Patent Office.

How did Commerce get to be such a crazy-quilt of government? Partly whim, partly politics, partly no real good reason.

When the Department of Transportation was created in the mid-1960s, an effort was made to put the Maritime Administration under its wing. Powerful unions and shipbuilders protested, and the reorganizers left it alone.

Later on, when NOAA - the weather and oceans agency - came into being, a logical step would have been to put it under Interior. But, as Carlson recalls it from his days as a deputy chief of the Ofifice of Management and Budget, then-President Nixon didn't go along with the move because he was miffed at Interior Secretary Walter Hickel.

Uhn, uhn, uhn - don't touch that dial. Kreps explained it this way in a recent departmental brochure: "The seeming illogic of Commerce's organizational maze begins t make sense if the context of its relationship to its overall mission: to faciliate commerce."

Oh.

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