President Obama on Friday nominated Gil Kerlikowske, director of Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House, to be commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
The news comes less than a month after the American Association of Exporters and Importers wrote a letter urging the president to quickly name someone to helm the agency, which plays a key role in the lives of companies engaged in international business through enforcement of trade and immigration regulations, and ensuring secure passage of cargo and travelers in and out of the country.
Kerlikowske has been the White House drug czar since 2009. Before that he was the police chief in Seattle. From 1998 to 2000, he worked in the Justice Department promoting community-oriented policing practices. He was also the chief of police in Buffalo, N.Y., for five years.
CBP and its predecessor, U.S. Customs, have typically been led by people with law enforcement backgrounds. If confirmed, Kerlikowske would be the second police chief in recent memory to run the agency. Former New York City Police Chief Raymond Kelly was commissioner from 1998 to 2001. Kelly, who heads the New York City Police Department again, has recently been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Janet Napolitano as secretary homeland security
CBP has been without a permanent leader selected by the White House for more than 18 months since the departure of Alan Bersin in December 2011. The agency has lacked a confirmed political appointee since February 2009, when Ralph Basham retired. Then-Deputy Commissioner Jayson Ahern ran the agency for the remainder of the year until his own retirement and was replaced by David Aguilar, who at the time led the Border Patrol within CBP and was subsequently named deputy commissioner. Bersin, who is now assistant secretary for international affairs in the Department of Homeland Security, was installed by Obama in March 2010 over the objection of key senators who blocked his confirmation because of revelations that he didn't properly file routine employment verification forms with immigration authorities documenting the hiring of some household staff. The recess appointment came with an expiration date. Aguilar replaced Bersin. When he retired earlier this year, deputy commissioner Thomas Winkowski took the agency's reins.
"While appointed civil servants have done a good job in running the agency we believe that it is critically important that a politically appointee be named quickly to lead CBP since it is an agency critical to many of your agenda priorities: immigration reform, conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the EU-U.S. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and export control reform," AAEI said in a letter dated July 9.
But Kerlikowske doesn't meet some of the trade association's criteria for a CBP chief
. The group recommended that the president select someone with business experience moving people or goods. It said a new commissioner should have experience running a large organization comparable to the 60,000-member workforce at CBP.
The Seattle Police Department employs about 1,800 people.
Kerlikowske also doesn't have any background in international trade, although as the point man for coordinating U.S. drug control policy he worked with foreign governments to stem the supply of drugs to the United States and would have knowledge about the supply chains of drug traffickers and how they try to smuggle contraband in legitimate cargo.
Business leaders and former Customs officials say the apparent neglect of CBP's top position likely reflected the White House's satisfaction with how career CBP's bureaucrats are managing the agency while it concentrates on priorities such as health care reform, immigration, the Libyan revolution and other foreign policy crises, the budget and gun control.
"CBP is kind of holding their own. You don't see it on the top fold of the New York Times
" for making gaffes, Samuel Banks, a former acting commissioner and deputy commissioner, said in a recent interview. "But it can't go on indefinitely. You need to have a political person in charge of that organization because you've got Congress to deal with and you need to interact at political levels" within the administration."
Political analysts say that civil servants who take the lead at federal departments and agencies typically don't have the clout to push through new initiatives or set the agenda, and instead focus on just managing operations without any disruption. CBP managers, however, are credited with continuing to fix the development process for the Automated Commercial Environment IT system and other trade simplification initiatives.
Although CBP has fared better than most agencies during the federal belt-tightening of the past few years, a commissioner with ties to the White House might be able to get more funding for personnel beyond line inspectors and Border Patrol agents, such as staff to handle the backlog of petitions on penalties for customs entry violations or investigate trade fraud, Susan Kohn Ross, a Los Angeles-based trade attorney at the firm of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, said.
Others say a full-fledged commissioner might have been able to stave off the sequestration cuts to front-line personnel sooner than Congress did when it clarified the agency had flexibility in how it could administer its budget reductions.
"Clearly there is supreme confidence with the senior career leadership to manage the mission," Ahern, now a principal at the Chertoff Group, said. But there needs to be a confirmed commissioner "as soon as possible if they're going to be serious about immigration reform."
John McGowan, a senior vice president of border security at Sandler & Travis Trade Advisory Services and a veteran U.S. Customs and homeland security official, said the administration also may have calculated it would save its political capital for pushing through nominees for more controversial positions given the recent difficulty in getting the president's selections confirmed by the Senate because of Republican filibusters.
The White House and Congress last month struck a deal to push nominees for votes to avoid Democratic threats to change the filibuster override to a simple majority instead of 60 votes. Obama pulled back a choices for a couple positions to placate Republicans. - Eric Kulisch