CUSTOMS CHIEF CHIDES BROKERS, VOWS REFORM LAW

CUSTOMS CHIEF CHIDES BROKERS, VOWS REFORM LAW

U.S. Customs Commissioner George Weise on Monday angrily rebuked the nation's largest group of customs brokers for rejecting a compromise modernization bill that it supported last year, and he pledged to move forward on the legislation despite their opposition.

"There is no further room for negotiation," Mr. Weise told the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America. "It is inevitable this bill will be passed in its current form."Mr. Weise is a former House staff member who is widely credited for putting together the coalition behind the 1992 Customs Modernization Act, which is the basis for this year's legislation.

The bill, before the House Ways and Means Committee, would provide the legal underpinnings for Customs' extensive automation programs and create a computerized National Entry Processing system that would allow Customs to release cargo from locations thousands of miles away from the port and customs district where the shipment arrived.

That system has been controversial because many brokers believe it will expose them to stiff competition from large, heavily automated importers and air couriers, and eventually put many companies out of business. For that reason, the association has changed its position on the bill several times.

On Sunday, the association's board of directors directed its president, Harold G. Brauner, to negotiate with Customs to change a provision in the bill that would grant national permits to qualified importers, carriers, customs brokers and air couriers as a condition for their participation in the national electronic system.

Under the proposal, which is supported by customs and most of the trade community, local permits for companies clearing cargo in one port from another city would be eliminated. A national permit system would allow air couriers, the primary object of the customs brokers' campaign, to participate fully in the electronic entry system.

"I was authorized by the board to further negotiate to get (into the bill) our position to remove national permits," Mr. Brauner said. Asked about Mr. Weise's refusal to negotiate further on the national entry system, Mr. Brauner said "there's always more negotiations. Remember, Congress has the final say."

Allowing air couriers to clear thousands of shipments without the presence of an experienced customs broker would "eliminate the element of control" provided by brokers, said an association spokesman who requested anonymity.

In addition, brokers feel a national permit "eliminates the need for a broker at the port," he said.

Evelyn Suarez, an attorney for the Air Courier Conference of America, dismissed the idea of requiring companies to have local permits when they make Customs entries.

"There's no need for that when you're filing electronically," Ms. Suarez said.

Mr. Weise said Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, last week agreed to move the bill through the committee in the next several weeks. Because Customs believes the bill is so critical, it has agreed to strip out its revenue provisions to ensure quick passage in the Senate, Mr. Weise said.

Visibly upset by the brokers' position, Mr. Weise said the association will now be seeing "a different George Weise. If we're on opposite sides of the fence, I can be a formidable opponent."

The brokers last year endorsed the national entry system with one caveat: Customs had to require a broker to be present in a port when import documents are submitted in paper. Language incorporating the brokers' concerns was inserted by the Senate Finance Committee by its chairman at that time, Lloyd Bentsen.

The Customs bill was attached to a broader trade bill that was eventually vetoed by President Bush. Last March, the Ways and Means trade subcommittee agreed to language that in effect would prevent air couriers from making entries on the national system. But Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., subcommittee chairman, instructed his staff and Customs to work out a compromise on the courier issue before the bill reached the full committee.