Monday, April 29, 2013

Picking a leader - How the Obama Administration gets sideways (again) at the Department of Commerce

Various news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal and Greenwire are reporting that President Obama intends to nominate Penny Pritzker as the next Secretary of Commerce.  Pritzker, whose family owns and runs the Hyatt Hotel chain (along with a number of affiliated brands) would bring a wealth of corporate management experience to the post, as well as a number of international connections that would no doubt be useful to the President's foreign trade relationship needs.

Unfortunately for Ms. Pritzker, her corporate experience has probably not prepared her for the majority of her day job - namely overseeing the 63% to 65% of her budget that is spent by NOAA.  You see, it's a closely guarded open secret that the largest single part - or Bureau - of Commerce is not really all about commerce per se (certainly not in the same way that the International Trade Administration, the Census, or the Bureau of Industrial Security or the Patent and Trademark Administration are).  Former Secretary Gary Locke (now Ambassador to China) understood this, but he had a head start in his learning curve having worked closely with NOAA on Pacific Northwest Salmon issues during his years in Olympia.

Unfortunately for our rebranded hotel leader, NOAA is all about forecasting the weather, protecting Endangered Species, setting national and regional commercial fishing quotas, understanding the linkages between climate change and drought, and conducting basic ocean and atmospheric research.  Some of those things require telling business sectors "No" rather loudly and often. It may be true that Ms. Pritzker's managerial experience will benefit NOAA - it's an organization of 12,000 or so staff - but that will only occur if she's briefed properly, trusts the civil service career staff to do their jobs, and the White House supports her by nominating a NOAA Administrator and other NOAA political appointees who actually understand what the organization does and how to best run it.  With the departure of Dr. Jane Lubchenko in February as NOAA Administrator, that chair is open.

So we'll see how it goes, particularly if and when there are confirmation hearings.  If Ms. Pritzker can answer ocean and weather questions, and maybe at least get climate terms correct , then there will be hope for her tenure as Secretary of Commerce.  Otherwise, she'll wind up like a long line of Commerce Secretaries before her who, as former Secretary Carlos Gutierrez (he of Kellog CEO fame) once said, had no idea they were coming to Washington to be Secretary of NOAA.

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