WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal sequestration could cut Customs and Border Protection’s manpower to the equivalent of about 5,000 agents over the the coming months, a former chief of the staff of the agency said Monday.
The agency has already begun reducing worker overtime and will begin furloughing its 21,000 Customs officers at ports, land borders and airports up to two weeks as soon as late April. The federal sequestration — which trims the agency’s budget by about $955 million — highlights the needs for the CBP to find ways to use its funding more efficiently and find other revenue sources, said Thaddeus Bingel, a principal at Command Consulting Group.
“Our ability to process increasing volumes of trade at seaports in the midst of all these problems really does present some challenges,” he told attendees of the American Association of Port Authorities' spring conference in Washington.
Although Customs funding has increased in recent years, the gains haven’t able to keep up with the growing demand for security, and salaries and other related expenses eat up more of the total budget, he said. Salaries and related expenses took 87 percent of total Customs funding in fiscal year 2012, a 10 percentage point increase from the same period three years prior, Bingel said.
The growing costs connected to staffing are leaving less money for new technology, modernizing facilities and other infrastructure projects. Through a Continuing Resolution, the House provided $9 billion for Customs salaries and expenses through the end of September.
“That’s a $300 million increase over the fiscal year 2012, but that is really not keeping pace” with needs, Bingel said
He said pre-inspection cargo clearance pilots, trusted trader programs, increased trust in trading partners and filing automation are helping the agency make the most of its limited resources. But it won’t likely be enough, Bingel said.
Increasing the pre-inspection of imports at the country of origin is one way to speed the processing of goods cost-efficiently, as is changing how containers are scanned. A straddle carrier with radiation detection capabilities, for example, could help ports by “scanning containers as they lie instead of as they go out the door,” Bingel said.
He said scanning technology used by Customs at ports is done by people on-site, but technology enables the analyzing of scans to be done thousands of miles away and more efficiently. That would allow the agency to better manage its time because there would be less downtime waiting for cargo — the remote location would be receiving scans from various locations.
Bingel encouraged stakeholders to push Customs to adopt user-based concepts. He pointed to how the Transportation Security Administration relies on trusted air cargo shippers to conduct the scans according to the agency’s standards and then share the images with government officials. Customs runs a program where smaller airports pay for agents to provide international passenger processing; Bingel said a similar approach to cargo could be adopted at seaports.
“I know you don’t want to pay for something that you get not for free but at a reduced cost today, he said. “But if the tradeoff was that by paying for those dedicated resources you knew you could process the volume at the level you want to process, it might make sense for some of you.”