Commissioner Alan Bersin wants to simplify the steps Customs and Border Protection takes to process imports into the nation’s commerce.
Maybe low-risk cargo could be approved for release before the container ever hits the pier. Maybe importers will be able to enter goods with less advance data than they now transmit to Customs. Maybe importers will be able reduce their paperwork, and pay Customs what they owe much as one now pays a credit card statement.
Maybe. “Simplified processes” is a term covering a broad range of concepts that have not yet coalesced into a plan of action, but Bersin is pushing his staff for results. Customs may start as early as Oct. 1 to test the concept that the agency can process goods more efficiently with less hassle for the importer.
Bersin has a big stake in the outcome. Unless he’s confirmed by the Senate, his term will expire on Dec. 31. In March 2010, President Obama made Bersin a recess appointee to lead Customs. Two months later, the Senate Finance Committee withheld its approval after Bersin admitted he had failed to file immigration forms on employees in his household.
Making it simpler for importers to enter goods could convince Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., Bersin is making good on his promise to refocus Customs’ trade facilitation efforts.
Simplification is part of Bersin’s “grand bargain” with the trade community: Customs gets more relevant data earlier, before goods leave a foreign port, and industrial shippers get more benefits. Cynthia Whittenburg, Customs’ director of trade facilitation, said the end-product may stand some traditional practices on their heads.
Managing importers by account is a cornerstone of the project. Traditionally, Customs processed entries transaction by transaction. Whittenburg said account management allows an importer to make a single periodic summary of all its entries, and pay customs the duties and fees it owes.
“We have talked about this for years — the credit card approach, where we take a look at all their transactions over a particular period, and they would settle up with us,” Whittenburg said.
All of these features will be part of the Automated Commercial Environment, but a fully functional ACE is still years away. The pilot will be built in a format that will fit into ACE when the time comes, but Customs doesn’t want to wait until ACE is ready.
A pilot test this year is causing some discontent. The National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America believes the process of simplifying processes is going to take Customs’ attention away from completing ACE.
Customs and a working group composed of members of several major importer trade associations are dedicated to simplified processes. They are looking closely at the information stream. Could importers enter goods with fewer data elements up front? Could documentation for imports rely on the importer’s own internal systems?
“Some companies generate an invoice just to meet Customs requirements, even though in the commercial world, they don’t really use it,” said Marianne Rowden, president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers. “Say you have a master contract to produce X number of widgets over a year’s period. You’re generating an invoice even though you’re shipping an allotment of whatever is produced under the terms of the contract. The way Customs regulations have evolved, it requires you to create documents so it appears that each shipment is a discrete transaction.”
Cargo data now comes to Customs through several channels: the Importer Security Filing, or 10+2 system; the cargo manifest; and the entry itself. Whittenburg said Customs is aiming at receiving the minimum amount of information it needs to get goods across the border. The importer can provide the rest of the data post-entry.
“We are looking at data efficiency. What do we need, and when do we need it?” Whittenburg said. “We are focusing on all the data sources, and asking what are the key elements we need to make a release decision that covers security and trade issues.”
The result may blur the line between security data and trade data. The distinction was a major issue when Customs and industry leaders were hammering out 10+2.
“I suspect we’re going to have a battle, because Customs is going to say at minimum they need the 10+2,” Rowden said. “We want to reduce the number of data elements we have, and Customs is going to say we need a minimum 10, because of the security filing.” She said AAEI favors Canada’s cargo security program, Customs Self Assessment. It requires just three data elements for entry.
“Our shooting-for-the-stars goal is that this set of data, whether it’s 10 or 14 elements, will be what’s necessary to gain release of your cargo,” Whittenburg said. “We’re looking for everything else to be post-release, as we receive and handle the information in an account fashion. That’s a major difference.”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.