WASHINGTON — The next secretary of Department of Homeland Security will likely focus on immigration issues to the detriment of Customs and Border Protection’s push to move goods and materials faster and more efficiently through ports of entry, an international trade attorney said on Monday.
The successor to Janet Napolitano, who announced on Friday she would step down as DHS secretary after four years at the post, will likely focus on how to implement an immigration reform bill, which has passed the Senate and is being debated in the House, said Susan Kohn Ross, chair of the International Trade Practice at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp in Los Angeles. The new DHS secretary will also be “yanked” into dealing with natural disasters, leaving Customs to take on many of its funding challenges by itself.
“The fact is that (DHS) is not focused on freight so (CBP) is going to have to suffer,” she said. “There are so many dollars out there, and the amount is shrinking.”
Fortunately, Customs, led by Acting Commissioner Thomas Winkowski, has shown that it can handle its own, despite having lacked a politically appointed chief since December 2011, Ross said. That President Obama hasn’t tapped a permanent commissioner since Alan Bersin left the job “is a testament to how the public servants are running the agency,” she said.
“But I do think there have been some negative impacts” of not having a politically appointed CBP commissioner,” Ross said. “They don’t have the political power, and it shows in budget discussions.” Although Customs has able to dodge furloughs created by the federal sequestration earlier this year, Ross said a Customs commissioner appointed by Obama could have nipped plans to furlough agents and reduce their overtime far sooner.
The next DHS commissioner will need to have a good balance of political policy background and management prowess, said Thaddeus Bingel, a principal at Command Consulting Group. The new DHS chief needs to be open to the idea of using user fees and public-private partnerships to bridge CBP’s funding gap. Legislation to allow shippers to pay the agency for increased staffing during busy times or for extended hours has stalled, and language calling for such changes was stripped of the Senate’s immigration reform bill.
Customs needs more than just more agents at the ports of entry and modernized facilities, Ross said. There is “backroom void” in the agency’s ability to respond to shippers’ duty challenges and petitions to release seized cargo, as the agency can take more than a year to respond to shippers, costing them time and money.
Although Napolitano focused on immigration issues, the former Arizona governor gave Customs the backing it needed to tailor its approach to keeping up with the needs of international supply chains, said Bingel, a former chief of staff at the agency. Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole, retired Coast Guard admiral Thad Allen and former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman are a few of the individuals floated as potential sucessors to Napolitano, according to The Washington Post.
Napolitano helped oversee the evolution of U.S. Customs and Border Protection after the September 11 attacks to more of a supply chain security facilitator than just a revenue collector, although the latter is still the agency’s top priority, said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association. He said her legacy in terms of air cargo will be bringing Customs and the Transportation Security Administration together to work on the Air Cargo Advance Screening initiative.