A MARRIAGE, THEN LOVE

NOT LONG AGO the U.S. Customs Service and customhouse brokers were fighting tooth and nail. Customs would issue a directive, and the brokers would declare it unworkable. The brokers would call for more staffing in district customs offices, and customs in Washington would say fewer people were needed. Customs would demand that brokers automate, and the brokers would counter that customs was incapable of processing electronic transmissions. It sounded like a Saturday night brawl.

At the root of the problem was the confusion arising from the introduction of automation in international trade. After centuries of swapping paper, exporters, importers and middle-men suddenly were talking to each other electronically. They were overwhelmed, not so much by the potential for speeding the flow of information but by how dependent upon each other they had become. When mistakes were made, one no longer could wag a finger and say, ''That's your problem." Whatever went wrong had become "our problem."Recognition of this changed state of affairs emerged at the annual meeting of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association in Palm Springs, Calif. Brokers and customs officials agreed that since they must interface daily, they might as well work together.

It was a case of misery loves company. Computer downtime, transmissions vanishing in mid-air, AWOL software vendors: the problems were not unique. As each began to experience the other's difficulties, they began to exchange compliments.

Brokers who participate in the Automated Broker Interface program reported that customs is processing their entry documents more rapidly than before. Customs officials responded that brokers should share in the praise because their entries filed through ABI contained fewer errors. Brokers who only last year were criticizing customs people for being automation "amateurs" suddenly were acknowledging their professionalism.

Customs and brokers will have many opportunities to work together in the months ahead. An example: Next Jan. 1 this country will join its major trading partners in using the new Harmonized System to codify imports and exports. Customs agreed to help conduct seminars this summer to prepare brokers for the new regime.

Another example: A surcharge is now collected on imports to help fund customs operations, but as the administration has demonstrated in the aviation and trucking industries, trust funds tend to get spent only when the administration is pressured to do so. Customs and brokers can work together to ensure the money is spent for its intended purpose.

Finally, as customs introduces the new automated systems, it is crucial that it seek input from brokers and others in the trade community. This will obviate the need to issue change orders later.

Now that customs and brokers have spent so much time and money to tie themselves together in an electronic union, they have no choice but to make the marriage work.

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