By Eric Kulisch
The clock is ticking on Alan Bersin’s short tenure as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Unless the Senate confirms him by the end of the year he is finished -- at least one year sooner than necessary depending on the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.
Bersin’s in this predicament because President Obama used the recess appointment process to install him on an interim basis in March 2010, when the Senate Finance Committee dragged its feet on confirmation after revelations that the former U.S. attorney hadn’t properly documented the residency status of some household workers. It was a minor -- very minor -- technical mistake that Bersin shouldn’t have made, and took responsibility for it.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus has forever held it against Bersin that he got his job through the back door, superseding congressional prerogative. And he felt that someone enforcing immigration laws should have complied with immigration law.
The rift between the White House and the Finance Committee appears quite deep. Nobody on the committee will comment about when, or if, it will vote on Bersin’s nomination, which was resubmitted in January.
Baucus has left him dangling long enough. It’s time for the Senate to give Bersin a job extension.
Here’s the irony of the situation. Baucus was a leading proponent in 2009 of a Customs reauthorization bill that would have placed greater emphasis on facilitating trade and smarter enforcement of trade laws, which many import/export companies felt were neglected in the rush to implement supply chain and border security measures after the 2001 terror attacks.
The bill never got far, but Bersin has done more to advance Baucus’ agenda and reduce the regulatory burden on international traders than any commissioner in memory. People engaged in foreign commerce are amazed by Bersin’s willingness to listen to their problems and the speed with which he is trying to reform operations so that cargo flows through border controls more efficiently -- and compliance costs are reduced.
Many government officials talk about partnering with the private sector or trying to be more sensitive to business needs. Bersin is actually getting things done. He’s reset CBP’s course after it had drifted into a single-mission agency. It is now tackling import safety, counterfeit trade, expedited cargo processing and other national needs in a much more serious way.
And Bersin’s not afraid to take on sacred cows or tell industry about its reciprocal responsibility to contribute to security and trade enforcement.
Bersin essentially has been a lame duck for the past year. It’s hard to lead an organization without having the full force of one’s office. The trade sector is lucky he’s been able to accomplish so much through the force of his own personality.
Look at some of the new thinking he’s brought to CBP.
He had CBP webcast a Commercial Operations Advisory Committee meeting for the first time to provide a window into the policymaking process for those unable to attend in person. The webcast of the August meeting in Los Angeles also included another first: allowing audience members to interact by submitting online questions to CBP officials and COAC members. Mexican and Canadian customs officials also attended the COAC meeting for the first time, underscoring Bersin’s desire to reach out to international partners.
He asked to address the American Association of Exporters and Importers’ annual conference this year before being invited because he wanted to stress his commitment to trade facilitation.
He sets aside one day each month for serial meetings with various trade organizations to discuss economic competitiveness, supply chain security and other issues. In August, he held two days of meetings with trade groups at CBP headquarters. Participants included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, the International Trade Surety Association, the Business Alliance for Customs Modernization, the American Trucking Associations and the Airports Council International-North America.
Much of the talk focused on reducing transactional hassles for companies that demonstrate high levels of compliance so that CBP can focus more on scofflaws.
The CBP chief met for two hours this year with officials from the International Trade Administration at the Commerce Department to suggest ways CBP could help the administration promote its National Export Initiative.
Bersin’s fingerprints were all over this year’s Trade Symposium. There was a longer town hall session for industry representatives to raise issues. The audience was allowed to directly ask questions of CBP officials -- a noticeable contrast from past practice controlling debate by forcing people to write down their questions on index cards that were culled and read by a moderator.
And Bersin acted like a real host. He was accessible. He stuck around for large portions of the two-day event, even mingling on the main floor with attendees and stopping at the C-TPAT booth to talk with rank-and-file staff, rather than ducking out after a keynote speech. Then, he stayed for almost two hours at the evening reception. That meant he heard about industry challenges first hand.
In years past, the Trade Symposium agenda was heavily laden with panels about CBP security programs. This year? Not so much.
More substantively, CBP under Bersin has made significant progress rescuing development of the Automated Commercial Environment information technology platform for processing cargo and sharing information with traders, moved to connect ACE with other government agencies through the single-window International Trade Data System, improved outreach and coordination with other agencies to expedite cargo release and reduce transaction costs, and helped create an interagency council to deal with regulatory overlap at the border and resolve disputes.
He is working to update broker regulations, institute cargo pre-clearance pilots on the northern and southern borders, consolidate trusted traveler programs, simplify customs entry and financial processes so importers would have fewer data and document-filing requirements to get goods released and pay duties, expand pilot programs for managing trusted importers on an account basis and create teams of industry-specific experts who develop uniform cargo processing-guidelines for ports and eliminate busywork by focusing on shipments with the highest risk profile.
Last spring, Bersin traveled to IBM headquarters in New York to warn the company it risked losing the ACE contract if it didn’t quickly correct the way it was managing the project.
The biggest challenge is changing CBP’s culture to one that embraces efficiency, transparency and predictability. To that end, he brought in Cindy Allen from the brokerage industry and her business acumen is starting to seep into CBP policy deliberations on modernization. By all accounts, she’s done a masterful job too of helping get ACE on track in her role as head of the ACE Business Office.
Bersin also shook things up by switching top managers between the offices of Field Operations and International Trade in an effort to better synchronize security and trade promotion efforts.
COAC members say Customs is moving faster than they ever hoped to enhance trade and they attributed the momentum to Bersin.
One trade specialist described Bersin as running CBP like a project manager who holds people accountable and wants timetables for getting things done rather than letting initiatives wallow in the normal bureaucratic process.
Appointment of new COAC members took longer than normal at the start of the year because Bersin took an active interest in the selections. Bersin, who has presided over every COAC meeting since taking office, wanted to personally review the list of potential candidates for open seats to make sure there is a strong cast of characters representing a good balance of industry viewpoints. He’s paid more attention to COAC than previous commissioners. COAC members are reinvigorated and working hard to quickly develop recommendations for all the new policy proposals.
Bersin gets high marks for reaching out to trade practitioners much earlier in the decision-making process so that the trade has an opportunity to provide real and meaningful feedback on program and policy changes. That’s different than getting public input once new regulations are almost fully baked, often through a mandatory public comment process.
Within six weeks of last year’s Yemen printer-cartridge bombing plot, for example, CBP was able to establish a voluntary data sharing regime with the express carrier industry to enhance air cargo security without disrupting time-sensitive shipments.
Cultural change often comes about in subtle ways. At the AAEI conference, a staff member from the Office of Trade immediately followed up to find out more from an audience member who had raised a concern about the Otay Mesa, Calif., border checkpoint during the question-and-answer period following Bersin’s speech.
Losing Bersin now could jeopardize the entire reform effort.
Ralph Basham, who held the top job at CBP for almost three years, called it “absolutely outrageous” that Bersin has not been confirmed.
He and former Customs commissioners Robert Bonner, Raymond Kelly, Carol Hallett, George Weise and Jayson Ahern (acting commissioner) have signed a letter to the Finance Committee vouching for Bersin and stating concern that an agency of CBP’s size and importance doesn’t have a permanent leader.
Bersin “has done a great job” and “made trade a priority for the agency,” Basham said on the sidelines of a homeland security conference in Washington.
Trade experts fear that if Bersin is not confirmed CBP will be rudderless for two years and that career staff will not follow through on reforms. It is one year until the presidential election and it likely will take many months for new leader to be nominated and confirmed. An acting commissioner can keep the organization treading water, but won’t have the political clout to push through new initiatives.
And there’s no guarantee that another long-term, political appointee will have the same priorities either.
There is real buzz among trade professionals that trade promotion is finally getting its due. They want to pitch in and help CBP achieve its goals.
If Bersin prematurely goes, that positive energy will be lost.
In February, several trade groups wrote a letter to the Finance Committee about Bersin, to no avail.
What you’d like to see is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Wal-Mart, General Motors, Ford, Target, Nike, Whirlpool, UPS, FedEx -- anyone who engages in cross-border trade -- stand up and let the Senate know how important Bersin is to their bottom line, especially at a time when the government is encouraging more exports to create jobs.
This summer I attended a briefing at which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report on the importance of modernizing management of the U.S.-Mexico border. When asked, Chamber President Thomas Donahue and Tom Ridge, chairman of the Chamber’s National Security Task Force and former secretary of Homeland Security, said they were not familiar with Bersin’s confirmation quandary.
Those are the types of heavy hitters that have to get involved if they feel what Bersin is doing is important for the economy and national security.
It’s probably going to take more than a few letters to convince the Senate to quickly confirm Bersin. This requires a grassroots coalition of groups with executives willing to make personal visits and phone calls.
But targeting such a message at the Finance Committee is probably misdirected. This is a sensitive issue. Things must be real bad if a Democratic-controlled Senate can’t see fit to approve someone nominated by a president from their own party. One gets the sense that Baucus’ mind is made up and that private sector groups will only set themselves up for a backlash on other important issues by intervening now.
So, don’t pressure the Senate. Direct concern at DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and President Obama. It’s the White House that ticked off Baucus in the first place and generally hasn’t worked to cultivate good relations with lawmakers and their staffs.
It’s incumbent on Napolitano to go to Capitol Hill and stress why Bersin is important to the department’s mission. And if the president or his advisors have to eat a little crow and apologize to Baucus to smooth things over -- so be it. — Eric Kulisch