Department of Commerce

Fact Box

United States Department of Commerce

Formed on February 14, 1903
Headquarters- Herbert C. Hoover Building, 1401 Constitution Ave, Washington, D.C.
Secretary of Commerce -- Penny Pritzker
Employees (2011) 43,880
Annual budget (2014) $7.9 billion


The Department of Commerce (DOC) has something of an odd mix of responsibilities. As its name indicates, the DOC focuses on promoting American businesses both in the United States and overseas. The department also gathers economic and demographic data to measure the well-being of the economy, promotes U.S. exports, enforces international trade agreements, regulates the export of sensitive goods and technologies, and issues patents and trademarks. But then there are Commerce’s non-business duties, such as overseeing scientific data that helps forecast the weather and determine the health of the world’s oceans. Altogether, Commerce maintains a fairly low profile in comparison to other cabinet-level departments, although that does not mean it is above causing controversy, especially when it involves the census or the issuing of patents.

In January 2012, President Barack Obama announced his intention to restructure the DOC as part of a cost-cutting reorganization of the federal bureaucracy. To accomplish this, he has asked Congress to create legislation that would grant him the power to make such changes with a majority congressional vote.


The Department of Commerce and Labor was created in 1903 at the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt. The combined missions of the new department didn’t last long, as officials in Washington soon realized the need to have a federal agency that was exclusively devoted to promoting American business. Roosevelt’s successor, President William Howard Taft, signed legislation in 1913 establishing separate Departments of Commerce and Labor.

President Taft left office before he could appoint the first Commerce secretary, so the duty fell to President Woodrow Wilson, who appointed manufacturing executive and politician William C. Redfield to lead Commerce. The new department consisted of the Lighthouse Service, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Steamboat Inspection Service, Census, Standards, Navigation, Fisheries, Foreign and Domestic Commerce, and the Bureau of Corporations.

Since then, the Department of Commerce (DOC) has undergone numerous changes to its composition. For example, the Bureau of Public Roads and the Maritime Administration eventually were removed from the department, while new offices were added, including those that later evolved into the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Department of Transportation.

Other subsections that have been part of and continue to be part of Commerce include the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Minority Business Development Agency, Economic Development Administration, International Trade Administration, and Bureau of Industry and Security.

An extensive restructuring of the DOC may be in the offing, as President Barack Obama, in January 2012, proposed the establishment of a new, Cabinet-level department that would oversee business and trade, while moving DOC’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into the Department of the Interior. The action is pending congressional approval. 

What it Does

The Department of Commerce (DOC) focuses on promoting American business at home and abroad. The department gathers economic and demographic data to measure the health and vitality of the economy, promotes U.S. exports, enforces international trade agreements, and regulates the export of sensitive goods and technologies. Commerce also issues patents and trademarks, protects intellectual property, forecasts the weather, conducts oceanic and atmospheric research, provides stewardship over living marine resources, develops and applies technology, measurements and standards, formulates telecommunications and technology policy, fosters minority business development, and promotes economic growth in distressed communities.

DOC Offices

Water and Air

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The NOAA is one of the Commerce Department’s key divisions. Through seven major offices, the NOAA provides scientific data for weather services, global warming research and fisheries management, among other duties. The NOAA’s five subcomponents are as follows:

National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service

The NESDIS operates the nation’s system of weather satellites. It launches and controls satellites and collects data transmitted back to ground stations. It also manages the processing, distribution and archiving of satellite data to make it available to researchers, planners, weather forecasters, the general public and others. The NESDIS operates two types of satellite systems. One is a polar-orbiting environmental satellite (POES) and the other is a geostationary operational environmental satellite (GOES).

National Marine Fisheries Service

The NMFS regulates commercial and recreational ocean fishing, managing marine life and their habitats in the waters three to 200 nautical miles from a U.S. shore (an area known in maritime law as an “exclusive economic zone,” where countries have enhanced resource-exploitation rights). The agency attempts to promote the multi-billion-dollar fishing industry through sensible stewardship. This entails carefully balancing the competing interests of economics and conservation. Much of the agency’s energy is devoted to propping up dwindling catches due to pollution or overfishing. It also conducts research and coordinates conservation efforts with local authorities.

National Weather Service

The NWS provides weather, hydrologic, and climate forecasts and warnings for the U.S., including its territories, adjacent waters, and ocean areas. Data is gathered from a broad national infrastructure covering land, sea and air, including weather radar and satellites as well as from marine observation buoys and surface observation systems that assist the aviation industry. The agency collects, compiles and analyzes data, and generates outlooks, forecasts, and warnings.

National Ocean Service

The NOS carries out three main activities related to navigation services, ocean resources conservation and assessment and ocean and coastal management. The office primarily collects environmental data and analyzes information about the world’s oceans. It also oversees the National Marine Sanctuary program and monitors coral reef sanctuaries. As part of its oceanic mission, the NOS is responsible for overseeing the cleanup of oil and chemical spills in or near ocean waters. 

Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

The OAR studies different aspects of the environment in an effort to understand, protect, and predict climate variability, water resources and the world’s different ecosystems. The office’s three main research areas cover climate, bodies of water (i.e., oceans, Great Lakes), and weather and air quality. In 2007 the OAR won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former Vice President Al Gore in distributing information about global warming. This work, at that time, stood in contrast to the position of the George W. Bush administration, which resisted the idea of global warming.

Office of Marine and Aviation Operations

The OMAO operates specialized ships and aircrafts to carry out research missions for the NOAA. The OMAO fleet is operated and managed by the NOAA Corps Officers along with civilian employees.

Office of Program Planning and Integration

The PPI uses corporate management to effectively run NOAA’s many programs with stakeholders, domestic and international partners in regards to environmentalism. The PPI involves strategic management, support for employees and performance evaluation.


Census Bureau

In addition to carrying out annual surveys, the Census Bureau conducts a decennial census (every 10 years). The census is used to determine the number of each state’s congressional representatives and electoral votes, as well as the allocation of federal tax dollars. Census data directly affect how more than $200 billion per year in federal and state funding is allocated to local, state, and tribal governments. The data are vital to other planning decisions, such as emergency preparedness and disaster recovery.

Bureau of Economic Analysis

The BEA is responsible for collecting data, conducting research and analysis and publishing statistics. The Census Bureau collects much of the raw data, which the Bureau of Economic Analysis then interprets. The statistics produced by the BEA are used by government, business and the public to track the nation’s economic performance. The figures that the BEA is most known for are the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the U.S. economy’s ranking among other economies and trade balance. Many government agencies, businesses and individuals make decisions based on the figures the BEA publishes.

National Institute of Standards and Technology

The NIST is charged with advancing measurement science, standards and technology for everything from nutrition to time and national security. The institute fuels U.S. technological innovation and progress through research and development in four key areas of focus: biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology and advanced manufacturing. Headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with laboratories in Boulder, Colorado, the NIST is home to one of the world’s most accurate atomic clocks, which serves as the source of the nation’s official time.

Economics and Statistics Administration

The ESA is responsible for providing timely economic analysis and disseminating national economic indicators, which it does through the release of briefings, fact sheets and reports that are developed by its team of expert analysts and economists. The ESA also oversees the BEA and the Census Bureau, working with their leadership on high-priority budget, employment, and management issues.

Patents, Trademarks and Licenses

Patent and Trademark Office

The USPTO is responsible for processing patent and trademark applications. Patents are a type of constitutionally sanctioned property right granted to inventors for exclusive development and deployment of their discoveries. The office has long been criticized for long waiting times, inefficiency, and granting patents for unjustifiably ridiculous “inventions.” Although the office only grants patents and trademarks valid in the U.S., its issue of U.S.-company patents for genetic modifications of biotechnology in foreign countries makes it susceptible to criticism of facilitating biopiracy and makes it part of a larger debate over international intellectual property. The office underwent a major reform in September 2011 with the passing of a law that, among other things, altered patent procedures from a “first to invent” to a “first to file” system.

Bureau of Industry and Security

The BIS grants licenses for the export of sensitive goods and technologies while balancing commercial interests against those of national security. The bureau also enforces sanctions and embargoes, works with other countries on export controls, monitors the health of the domestic defense industry and promotes U.S. trade interests abroad. The BIS has a range of responsibilities relating to the interaction between industry and security. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, emphasis has been placed on restricting the export of technologies that could be used to create weapons of mass destruction.

Helping Business

National Telecommunications and Information Administration

The NTIA advises the president and works with other Executive Branch agencies to develop the administration’s domestic and foreign telecommunications policy. The agency is responsible for managing federal use of radio frequencies that includes significant military and intelligence use. NTIA regulations and policies affect common technologies such as cell phones, the Internet, public radio and television, wireless technology, and airplane travel. The agency both assigns frequencies to federal agencies and works with the Federal Communications Commission. The NTIA also carries out telecommunications and engineering research, develops new technologies, resolves technical issues for the federal government and private sector, and develops policy for the government communications satellite system. The agency administers grants in the telecommunications and information sector and promotes deregulated telecommunications policies abroad.

International Trade Administration

The ITA is responsible for promoting and protecting U.S. industry interests in international trade through various research, policymaking, and enforcement activities. The association focuses on unfair trade practices and so-called “dumping” of goods, which leads to investigations by the association into whether merchandise is sold in the U.S. at less than fair value. In the interest of U.S. industry, the ITA imposes “countervailance” duties to offset the effects of subsidies granted to foreign manufacturers by their governments.

The ITA also oversees the Iraq Investment and Reconstruction Task Force, which helps American companies participate in the economic rebuilding of Iraq. The task force and its web site serve as clearinghouses of information for U.S. companies interested in Iraq. The task force works closely with other federal government agencies and international organizations to provide companies with the latest information on the commercial environment in Iraq and potential reconstruction business opportunities.

National Technical Information Service

The NTIS serves as a public clearinghouse for scientific and business information primarily acquired through government-funded research. According to the agency’s web site, the NTIS maintains some 3 million publications in more than 350 subject areas, with many documents created after 1997 available for download. Its Bibliographic Database contains more than 2 million records dating back to 1964, and adds more than 30,000 new records per year. The contents of the database include research reports, computer products, software, plus video and audio cassettes. The NTIS currently receives no appropriations from the federal government, covering expenses by charging fees for most products and services.

Helping the Poor and Minorities

Economic Development Administration

The EDA provides grants to poor communities in order to create new employment and stimulate industry and commercial growth. Much of EDA assistance is aimed at rural and urban areas of the U.S. that are experiencing high unemployment, low-income or other types of severe economic distress. The EDA’s three key investment programs focus on expanding and upgrading physical infrastructure, designing strategies to diversify local economies, and supporting research of leading economic development practices.

Minority Business Development Agency

The MBDA funds minority resource and development centers throughout the country to assist entrepreneurs/business owners with business plans, marketing, management and technical assistance, and financial planning. The agency’s six regional offices dispense technical advice and information to a network of 40 local business development centers around the country, located in areas with the highest concentration of minority populations and the largest number of minority businesses. Ethnic groups designated eligible for MBDA assistance include Native Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders.

Where Does the Money Go?

The Department of Commerce (DOC) spent more than $44.7 billion on 270,156 private contractor transactions from 2002 to 2012. The top five types of goods and services paid for were professional support ($2,670,365,598), information technology and telecommunications services ($2,149,375,196) and development ($1,346,336,808), printed matter ($1,024,599,040), and R&D operational system development ($950,922,030).

The section of the DOC that spent the most on contractors was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ($10 billion), followed by the Bureau of the Census ($5.4 billion), the Patent and Trademark Office ($4.88 billion), the National Institute of Standards and Technology ($2.3 billion), and the Bureau of Industry and Security ($15.7 million).

The top five recipients of Commerce contracts included two of the country’s largest defense contractors (Lockheed Martin and Raytheon):

1. Harris Corporation                                      $1,495,562,725          

2. Lockheed Martin Corporation                    $1,118,603,599          

3. Reed Elsevier Group PLC                             $962,293,674

4. IBM Corporation                                           $569,060,681

5. Raytheon Company                                       $515,870,831

Examples of Commerce contracts

IBM was awarded a $120 million contract to help consumers make the transition from analog televisions to digital once TV broadcasters began transmitting digital signals in 2009. IBM provided services for the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program through its business partners: Corporate Lodging Consultants, Epiq Systems, and Ketchum Public Affairs. Services provided consisted of consumer education; coupon distribution to consumers and retail store participation; and financial processing to reimburse retailers as well as maintain records to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

Data for Department of Commerce