The proposed department of trade, insists Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige , is needed to put United States export policy in fighting trim. Twenty-five percent of US manufactured goods is exported, he notes. Forty percent of US agricultural production is sold abroad. Meanwhile, a decline in exports has cost the US 1 million jobs in the last three years.
Yet trade is the only area ''where the making of policy and the carrying out of policy are split'' between two cabinet-level agencies, says Mr. Baldrige.
The Office of the US Special Trade Representative is largely responsible for trade policymaking. The Commerce Department's duties include implementing much trade policy. The proposed trade department, outlined last week, would combine USTR and Commerce, then spin off nontrade Commerce activities to other agencies.
With the way things are now, ''accountability for trade isn't pinned down in one place,'' complains Baldrige. Most of the countries the US competes with for foreign trade have more streamlined government trade departments than the US, he says.
But the proposed trade department would still not have jurisdiction over one of the most lucrative US exports - agricultural products. The Foreign Agricultural Service would stay embedded in the Agriculture Department.
''Agricultural trade is enough different from industrial trade, and running well enough, that we think it ought to be left where it is,'' says Baldrige.
Activities that are today part of the Commerce Department, but which might be spun off on their own or sent to other agencies, include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA).
Some members of Congress worry these potential orphans of the bureaucracy might find their funds drastically slashed if forced to leave Commerce. For instance, the administration has in the past made repeated attempts to cut NOAA's budget, critics note.
Baldrige, however, declined to comment on where NOAA or MBDA might end up, on grounds that Congress must be consulted before any such move is made. ''Nothing is engraved in stone yet,'' he said.
The proposed department of trade, claims a lobbyist with close ties to USTR, is nothing but a ''power play'' on Baldrige's part to muscle in on some prestigious turf.
But Baldrige insists he has no idea who might run the proposed department.
''I made a living in the private sector once before. I can do it again,'' he says.
And whatever happens to the Commerce Department itself, says Baldrige, the aquarium in the Commerce Building basement won't be kicked out onto the streets. Once run by the government, the aquarium was threatened with extinction by budget cuts, until rescued by a private group.
''The fish here are very affectionate,'' says Baldrige. ''They've all got character.''