In light of Commerce Secretary John Bryson’s decision to resign his office today, we are re-posting our explainer on who he is and what the Commerce Department does. The post, which first ran on June 12, is below.


Commerce Secretary John Bryson has taken a medical leave of absence after getting involved in three traffic accidents Saturday during what officials say was a seizure. His deputy, Rebecca Blank, will take over as acting secretary.

Bryson’s accident(s) has drastically raised the profile of the Commerce Department, which has long been one of the more minor members of a President’s Cabinet.

So, what does the Commerce Secretary do?

The Department of Commerce and Labor was founded in 1903, under President Teddy Roosevelt.

U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson during a session organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in Mumbai, India. (Rajanish Kakade/AP)

Labor unions continued to lobby for their own department, and in 1913 under President William Taft, the two split.

The Commerce Department’s mandate is to promote economic growth, with a particular focus on trade. But it also serves some regulatory and statistical functions.

Other parts of its purview are somewhat random. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the Commerce Department. Why? Because President Richard Nixonwanted to punish his Secretary of the Interior. The Census is under Commerce.

Juanita Kreps, who helmed the agency under President Jimmy Carter, called the agency Noah’s Ark, but with one — rather thant two — of everything.

As Cabinet departments go, the Commerce budget is pretty small; for 2012 Obama proposed $8.8 billion. By contrast, Housing and Urban Development got  $41.74 billion.

Bryson, the former CEO of the California utility company Edison International, became Commerce Secretary in 2011.

His nomination was held up by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) over his environmental views — Bryson helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Blank, served as acting secretary for the months he was in limbo — good experience as she now takes on the role again.

Bryson was ultimately confirmed by a 74 to 26 vote, and there were no radical shifts in department policy.

“Until the most recent accident i think im hard pressed to think of a time he was in the news,” said Alan P. Balutis, a Commerce Department veteran who now works at Cisco Systems.

The Commerce Department doesn’t get much attention or love in the press. But it was one of the three agencies Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) wanted to eliminate. It’s not a new idea. Bipartisan calls for Commerce’s elimination date back to at least the 1970s.

In fact, President Obama proposed getting rid of the Commerce Department and creating a new agency that would house the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and the Trade and Development Agency. The rest of Commerce’s agencies would be redistributed to other parts of the Cabinet.

Bryson himself endorsed the idea, writing in a blog post, “This move would be of enormous benefit to U.S. businesses of all sizes.  We will have more resources and less red tape.”