Washington Notebook: By Eric Kulisch
We are finally beginning to see a Customs bureaucracy that views part of its role as assisting the U.S. economy by making it easier for companies to engage in international trade and generate profits.
Beyond that, Customs and Border Protection is maturing into an organization that works smarter. Rather than each office or port of entry exercising separate control over various aspects of the import process, the agency is looking to centralize processing so interpretation of trade rules is done in a more uniform manner, ultimately giving shippers more predictability for getting their goods to market.
There is now a sense of excitement among traders that the agency understands the need to balance security, trade facilitation, collection of duties and enforcement. Simplified entry and the Centers for Excellence and Expertise are stepping stones towards true management by account, which is to be followed by a simplified entry summary process that allows companies to pay duties on an account basis when it best suits their cash cycle.
Trading firms and professionals have clamored for years for a system that lets them declare their goods as soon as they are prepared to ship overseas, offers conditional notice that the goods satisfy security and regulatory requirements or need further examination, lets compliance reviews and enforcement take place away from the border in a post-release environment so legitimate shippers don’t suffer costly delays, and does financial settlement on a consolidated basis rather than having all parties micromanage each shipment.
In case you missed it, here are some of the other good things going on at CBP:
- An Air Cargo Advanced Screening pilot to get pre-departure airfreight data for security targeting without slowing down the shipping process;
- A pending trial program that leverages customs brokers to bring shippers into the Importer Self-Assessment program;
- A possible opening of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism to other stakeholder groups and creating an export component, among other enhancements;
- Rethinking how to more effectively collect anti-dumping and countervailing duties to prevent revenue leakage; and
- Leading other government agencies to work collaboratively and present a “One Government at the Border” face so traders don’t have to wind their way through multiple clearance processes.
It’s a big lift but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. In the past year, the initiatives underway have gone from concept to potential reality.
Meanwhile, the Automated Commercial Environment is back on track after it looked like Congress might pull the plug on what was becoming the Taj Mahal of government IT projects. Automation is finally being driven by policy instead of calls from undisciplined stakeholder groups and technology advocates to include every possible bell and whistle in the new commercial trade processing system.
Much of this momentum can be attributed to the vigorous leadership of Commissioner Alan Bersin. Of course, the trade facilitation initiatives underway are not new ideas. Many programs were already in place, albeit at immature stages in many cases. Bersin no doubt built on the work of predecessors such as Robert Bonner, Ralph Basham and Jayson Ahern.
But for all the good intentions and talk of modernizing trade functions, little got done.
Bersin has made a difference because he’s relentlessly pushed forward trade facilitation initiatives and ACE, created a results-oriented culture in which making incremental progress on solving problems is better than waiting for the perfect solution, maintained constant vigilance over the work underway, created an environment that empowers a talented management team to take the initiative, and demanded accountability so there could be no lapse into the natural bureaucratic inclination to study issues to death.
Everyone now has a business plan to follow and he is holding people to it.
Listen to what Don Huber said at the Dec. 7 meeting of the Commercial Operations Advisory Committee.
Huber, global customs manager for General Electric, noted that he’s been working with the Office of International Trade on some of the trade reforms for almost five years.
“It has been your leadership that gave them the mindset to progress further. We were stalled between first and second base for a long, long time. So, finally we’ve seen some accomplishments,” he said.
Despite all the optimism among trade professionals, there’s also an impending sense of angst because Bersin, their champion, probably will have to step down by the end of 2011. He’s caught in the middle of a cat fight between the Senate Finance Committee and the White House. President Obama used a temporary appointment procedure in 2010 when he wasn’t confirmed by the Senate, but the appointment term is coming to a close.
COAC member Karen Lobdell, director of global solutions for Integration Point, a trade management software provider, addressed the situation without mentioning the elephant in the room: it likely was Bersin’s last COAC meeting because of the politics surrounding his job.
“It is fair to say that the work accomplished to date is heavily tied to the sense of strong leadership at the executive level of CBP and an approach that is noticeably goal-driven with specific deadlines in mind,” she said in a formal statement opening the meeting.
“I think it is also important to note that the amount of outreach and engagement with the trade in the past year cannot be understated – and this is not limited to just the COAC but to all of trade and other associations as well. As a result, the trade is more engaged than ever and the COAC, in particular, has been reinvigorated with respect to its goals. So much is being accomplished.
“That said, it is critical that as we enter 2012 we keep this momentum going. Modernization of CBP and achieving the twin goals of trade security and trade facilitation rely on both CBP and the trade continuing this trend.
“Whatever changes may occur as we move into 2012 the trade is counting on CBP executive leadership to ensure that we stay the course that has been defined in the past year so these goals can be achieved. We cannot afford to lose sight of what has been accomplished this year, nor can we afford to lose the momentum,” she said, indirectly appealing to Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar and other top officials to maintain their focus on trade reform.
The COAC meeting was remarkable because there was no mention of Bersin’s pending departure, no goodbyes from him, no statements from anybody that the Commissioner would be missed.
It was business as usual.
And that personifies Bersin’s approach. He hasn’t shown any slowing down on his priority issues even though the end is probably near. He obviously decided that as long as he was commissioner he was going to keep moving ahead and, by doing so, showed that he expected COAC and his staff to do the same.
Despite the looming distraction of prematurely ending his Customs tenure without Senate confirmation, he didn’t lose sight of what he was supposed to be doing.
He wouldn’t let the COAC meeting turn into a goodbye ceremony. How could he? There are three more weeks to get stuff done.