WASHINGTON — Import cargo delays at U.S. ports of entry will become “catastrophic” if the partial government shutdown lasts more than two weeks, an international trade attorney said on Friday.
Importers and exporters whose shipments require paperwork from federal agencies — namely the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Service — continue to grapple with delays of several hours or more. But if the shutdown continues, cargo will back up, forcing shippers to accrue demurrage and storage costs, said Susan Kohn Ross, an attorney with Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp in Los Angeles.
“There is nothing (shippers) can do,” said Pete Mento, director of global customs and trade policy at C.H. Robinson. “They are positively dead in the water with these issues.”
Unlike the other federal agencies, Customs and Border Protection hasn’t seen its work force as severely furloughed. Only 6,000 of the 58,000 CBP workers were furloughed after the government shut down over President Obama’s health care law.
Cargo clearance delays have been most egregious when the shipments require approval from the EPA, Mento said. Customs has done a good job of telling shippers and logistics providers what to expect, but the other agencies haven’t, despite knowing for weeks that a shutdown was possible.
That’s likely because the other agencies don’t view facilitating trade as their core mission, Ross said. These types of cargo delays occurred 17 years ago when the federal government last shut down, and the likes of the EPA, the USDA and the FDA haven’t improved their process since then to deal with this type of situation, she said.
“Customs has always done a good job because (cargo) clearance is so important to them,” Ross said. “But it isn’t for the other agencies. Something has to change. This can’t keep happening.”
The government shutdown hasn’t slowed the U.S. shipment of wine, beer and liquor, but customs brokers haven’t been able to get needed labels from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Bureau because the agency is closed, said Allison Leavitt, managing director of the Wine and Spirits Association. Brokers have had to get the labels from shippers, causing some paperwork headaches, she said. New labels requests, which have increased largely because of the explosion of craft production, are stalled.
Leavitt is more concerned that CBP employees who troubleshoot issues with the Customs Automated Manifest System have been furloughed. So far, she hasn’t heard of any hiccups with the automated processing system.
“Eventually, there are going to be some hang-ups, though,” she said.