For almost four years, disagreements among federal agencies have impeded U.S. participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Travel Card (ABTC) program. The ABTC is meant to expedite the travel of business men and women in the Asia-Pacific region as international trade and travel has grown explosively. Of the 21 APEC member economies, the United States is one of only three that has not been able to offer enrollment to our citizens as they seek to compete in the region – this despite an explicit commitment by President Bush in 2007 that the United States would participate in the program. Ironically, we expedite the travel of 90,000 enrolled foreign nationals when they visit the United States, so the only people impacted by this legal snafu have been U.S. travelers. As the Departments of State, Commerce, and Homeland Security realized, they needed explicit jurisdiction to issue ABTC’s. Congress has been forced to act.

Today marks a huge milestone as the House of Representatives passed H.R.2042, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Travel Cards Act of 2011, introduced by Reps. Rick Larsen and Kevin Brady. The bill allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to issue ABTCs to qualified business executives at no cost to the Treasury or taxpayers. Last week, similar legislation (S.1487) introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell was marked up in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and hopefully the full Senate will act on either the Senate or House legislation soon.

Eighteen of the twenty-one APEC economies are full members of the ABTC program, while the United States, Canada, and Russia participate as “transitional members.” Cards are issued by individual economies for use by their own citizens. Full members of the ABTC program recognize the card as a multiple-entry visa valid for three years and offer dedicated lanes for faster immigration processing at ABTC member international airports. As a transitional member, the United States provides foreign holders of the ABTC with expedited scheduling of visa interviews and use of crew lanes for facilitated entry when traveling to the United States. We do not recognize the ABTC as a visa due to requirements of U.S. immigration law, and enactment of this legislation would have no effect on the requirement that any business visitor to the United States who is a citizen of an APEC member economy (other than Canada or a country participating in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program) must hold a valid U.S. visa.

Once the bill becomes law, benefits of holding an ABTC include being permitted to use the “crew” or designated ABTC lanes in airports when entering a country and expedited visa processing for those visitors needing a visa. The bill has been designed to coordinate ABTC with CBP’s existing Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI trusted traveler programs.

The timing for this bill is no accident. The United States is hosting APEC this year for the first time in almost two decades. We need this bill passed prior to the 2011 Leaders’ Meeting next month to show our foreign competitors that we are serious about robust participation in the international marketplace.