By Guest Contributor Douglas Doan
Secretary Napolitano has recently responded to growing complaints that little of the $1.3 billion of stimulus money is being spent to expand the capacity at ports of entry (POEs) and alleviate the long lines of frustrated trade and travelers that are routinely stalled along the border. Napolitano is correct in asserting that politics played no role in the diversion of most of stimulus funding to low priority POEs.
It was incompetence.
POE’s are best viewed as the nation’s cash registers, representing billions in daily trade and travel crossing the border. Well designed, fully staffed and efficient POEs allow trade and travel to move quickly. Poor POE’s, by contrast, doom trade and travelers into long lines, sometimes in excess of six hours and driving up both costs and frustrations and represent an added tax on trade. Unfortunately, investments in border infrastructure at POEs have not kept pace with expanding trade over the past 10 years. So lines and frustrations have grown and cross border trade has been harmed.
When President Obama pushed the $787 billion stimulus plan he argued that the highest priority for the funding would go to infrastructure projects that would help put Americans back to work and result in economic expansion. Border communities rejoiced because they know better than anyone else that improved infrastructure at POEs was long overdue and would result in the single, largest economic benefit to not only their local communities, but to the entire nation. Trade helps everyone.
So what went wrong with this plan?
Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Jayson Ahern had a different idea from the Administration’s. He viewed the $1.3 billion in infrastructure funding for POEs as an opportunity to improve enforcement operations and improve the living conditions for CBP officers at the many small POEs that are mostly located along the northern border and experience few daily crossers and insignificant amounts of trade. And thus, the smallest POEs in the nation, to include a quaint POE in Texas that features a hand-operated raft, went to the top of this list for stimulus funding, while the largest POEs (Detroit, San Ysidro, Buffalo, and in Texas) which have over $1 billion in trade crossing each day, got nothing. Nothing?
OK , I hear you: You’re saying, “Boy, that was dumb. Why did DHS let that happen?”
The easy answer is that since 9/11 the customs and trade mission of CBP has been diminished while the border protection mission has become dominant. Under the past few commissioners, acting and otherwise, facilitating trade and travel was not viewed as important as security, and resources and efforts have consistently been diverted toward border protection. In short, trade got screwed.
Border communities know this best of all because they routinely see huge lines of frustrated travelers attempting to cross the border while many of the primary inspection booths go unmanned. CBP has most of the officers assigned to enforcement operations while trade facilitation goes begging. Billion-dollar technology programs like ACE, which were sold to Congress and the trade community as critical trade facilitation upgrades have all morphed into primarily enforcement tools. In short, the customs and trade mission has been so diminished that CBP has become cBP — or maybe just BP, as customs funding is diverted to protection operations.
With an economy that is sputtering, it is foolish to allow inefficiencies at POEs to drive up costs of cross-border trade. More foolishly still, CBP diverted funding, which was supposed to help build the infrastructure at POEs that benefit trade and legitimate travelers, to other priorities.
Saddest of all, is the fact that the nation is now running huge unsustainable deficits. Indeed, to improve the infrastructure at our clogged POEs, we borrowed the $1.3 billion from China. But the money was mostly diverted and, then, squandered — leaving our most important trade arteries still clogged, thereby dooming legitimate trade and travelers to a hidden tax when crossing the border. Given the government’s budgetary problems, it will be unlikely that the government, in the near future, can come up with the large amount of funding required to make the necessary improvement at our largest POEs. That means trade will be hampered and impeded for the next decade as a result of these poor decisions.
But these poor decisions and their consequences make it clear that it was not politics that did this. It was incompetence.
Douglas Doan is a former DHS official in the Private Sector Office. He served on the official U.S. Delegation responsible for negotiations with Mexico and Canada on the Security and Prosperity Plan and is now a member of the Border Trade Alliance Board of Directors.