There are not many agencies with as diverse a set of responsibilities as U.S. Customs and Border Protection. I remember when testifying as a DHS official before Congress, one member insisted I say whether drug enforcement was a more important mission than counterterrorism. Knowing a “gotcha” question if there ever was one, I noted that CBP, and DHS more broadly, had both the need and the tools to do both missions, and many others, at the same time. The two pieces of good news for CBP early in 2014 are that the agency appears to be receiving both an infusion of funds and a confirmed Commissioner to help tackle that very diverse mission set.
First, the FY2014 omnibus appropriations bill that appears to be headed to final passage later this week treated CBP, and particularly its border facilitation responsibilities, very well. Appropriators, most notably Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Dan Coats (R-IN) and Congressmen John Carter (R-TX) and David Price (D-NC) included an increase of $225M to hire 2,000 new CBP frontline officers over the next two years. Travel at our land and seaports of entry, and particularly international airports, has been a bright spot in a floundering economy, and the influx of travelers has strained CBP’s ability to process travelers in a secure manner.
CBP’s leadership, including Acting Commissioner Tom Winkowski and Acting Deputy Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, deserve a lot of credit for recognizing this challenge and moving aggressively to implement new technology, like the Automated Passport Control initiative, and programs, like Global Entry, which has reduced the incidence of extreme wait times. However, more manpower is needed and the appropriators were able to squeeze more funding into a tight fiscal climate.
In addition, the bill keeps the pressure on CBP to continue innovation by demanding port-specific plans to manage traffic flows and provides extra funds for innovation and force multipliers like the existing pre-clearance program. The legislation also lays down markers for how CBP can implement public-private partnerships at land, sea and airports where local communities or private sector entities are willing to invest in CBP. Considering how dire the environment for CBP looked just a few months ago under the threat of sequestration, the budget outlook is downright sunny.
Second, nominee for CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske finally received a long-awaited confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on January 15. Kerlikowske would bring a wealth of experience to CBP, including law enforcement credentials as a former police chief and key official in the COPS office, and counter-narcotics leadership as the “drug czar.” In addition, having worked in two major border communities (Seattle and Buffalo), he understands border management and the value of cross-border trade and travel. Considering just how important an agency CBP is to our security and economy, it is unfortunate that the Obama Administration and the Finance Committee have not been able to agree on a nominee since 2009, but CBP has fared well under career officials. Having a senior political appointee such as Kerlikowske with connections to the White House and nearly all of CBP’s stakeholders will help CBP manage its diverse, yet critical missions.
When Kerlikowske hopefully arrives following a Senate confirmation, the budget that has been provided will bring a little more sunshine to his welcome party at the Ronald Reagan Building.