U.S. Customs is using plans for how to resume business in the wake of a natural or man-made disaster as a guideline for dealing with the forced budget cuts that went into effect March 1, the agency said in a memo over the weekend outlining how it will try to minimize the impact of the sequester process.
Officials reiterated that they are eliminating overtime work and personnel will begin to to lose a day per pay period in unpaid leave in mid-April. Their strategy redirects resources toward the most critical core functions at border checkpoints, such as anti-terrorism and processing perishable commodities, while reducing resources evenly across all locations for less critical functions. The communications strategy for keeping industry abreast of developments and addressing any concerns centers on weekly telephone conference calls by Field Operations and International Trade staff with national trade associations, as well as outreach at the local port level.
"These cuts take place against a backdrop of significant growth of international travel and trade in all environments. International air travel has increased by 12 percent over the past three years and is expected to increase an additional 5 percent this year. Land border commercial and passenger traffic is increasing on both the Northern and Southern borders, and maritime and air cargo shipments have grown by 4 percent over the last year," Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar, the agency's de facto head, said in a letter to more than two dozen trade associations
"Given the importance of this commercial activity to the U.S. economy, CBP is very concerned about the ramifications of sequestration and we will endeavor to operate in a manner that is least disruptive to our mission and to your business," he wrote.
Although cargo exams could take five or more days and significant delays are expected to cross land borders, trusted traders and travelers that have made upfront security investments will receive priority processing next month after furloughs kick in so port directors can direct limited resources to people and conveyances that pose more risk, the memo said. Members of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and the Air Cargo Advance Screening pilot programs will also continue to have access to their respective CBP points of contact, including industry specialists at a handful of Centers of Excellence and Expertise (CEE), according to the information posted on Customs and Border Protection's Web site. C-TPAT specialists and CEE staff are available to eligible companies to answer any questions about import and export compliance.
Customs said it will not divert cargo from some ports because, unlike following a natural disaster, all ports will operate with an equal amount of reduced resources. Talks with other agencies are ongoing to assess how the sequestration process will impact deployment of inspectors and minimize potential trade disruptions. CBP said, for example, that cutbacks at the Agriculture Department's Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service may not involve operations at the port level.
Obtaining compliance advice and rulings on legal matters such as penalty protests may take longer under the current budget environment, CBP said.
The agency advised importers to pre-file entry information as much as possible, as some companies involved in a simplified entry pilot already do, to give regulators the ability to conduct risk assessments and resolve outstanding issues before cargo arrives in the United States.
Non-mission critical functions that are being curtailed include travel and training. "While regrettable, this means that trade stakeholders should not plan on attendance by CBP personnel (or as a speaker) for conferences or meetings in the near to mid-term," the memo said.
Events outside Washington through April that have scheduled speakers from the Department of Homeland Security include:
- Air Cargo 2013 produced by the Airforwarders Association, the Express Delivery and Logistics Association, and the Air and Expedited Motor Carriers Association (March 10-12 in Las Vegas).
- American Petroleum Institute's International Trade and Customs Conference (March 17-19, Galveston, Texas).
- National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (April 7-10, Rancho Mirage, Calif.).
- Council on Safe Transportation of Hazardous Articles' annual forum (April 21-23, San Diego). - Eric Kulisch