WHAT if you planned a menu of the week's meals and had to go to a different store for each ingredient - and you don't even know which stores to look in? Companies in the United States have faced something like that scenario for years when it comes to federal, state, and nonprofit programs that help them find export markets for their products.
The Clinton administration is trying to change that by combining federal programs in regional "one-stop shopping centers," the first of which opened in Seattle on Monday. Four pilot US Export Assistance Centers exist in other cities, and 10 more sites will be rolled out this year.
President Clinton's determination to support US exports has also become clear in his tough stance against Japan in talks on auto parts.
Business leaders, generally, are pleased with this week's streamlining effort and the Commerce Department's new-found passion for helping US firms "do deals" abroad.
But the action comes as congressional Republicans move to abolish the department.
Rep. Jack Metcalf (R) of Washington maintains that the GOP will not throw out the baby with the bath water. Rather, the goal of abolishing the Cabinet office is to reduce government bloat, but the department's key functions would still be carried out.
He told meeting participants he will push to save export assistance, along with the Patent Office and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Export assistance brings $4 back to the US Treasury for every $1 spent, Mr. Metcalf says. "That's certainly something the Republicans ... are not going to overlook."
"The Commerce Department is not a back- water" any more, because of Secretary Ron Brown's efforts, asserted Lauri Fitz-Pegado, assistant secretary of the agency. To abolish assistance "would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament" in competitive global markets, she says.
"Don't forget the reason why we're here - jobs. That's why we created these centers," added the agency's Daniel McLaughlin.
The assistance centers combine functions of the Export-Import Bank, the Small Business Administration, the Commerce Department, and the US Agency for International Development. Services include loan guarantees to help buyers of US goods, referral to state and private-sector groups, and counseling, with heightened emphasis on small businesses with few resources to devote to complex issues of trade development.
"They're moving into the same building" as the state export agency, says Pat Davis, who heads the Washington Council on International Trade, a private-sector group here.
When you compare the importance of export-related jobs with the relatively low number of US firms that ship goods abroad, the need for this effort is clear, says Washington State trade director Mike Fitzgerald. Of perhaps 15 million US businesses, about 100,000 export, and 1,000 account for 80 percent of all export volume.