Customs Sharing Hard Times with Importers and Travelers

While much has been made in the press about the effect of the sequestration on U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), with experts and even CBP officials anticipating longer lines at immigration check-points and longer times to clear cargo, the sequestration is only another thorn in the budgetary side of CBP. And CBP seems to want to share that pain with importers and travelers alike.

Some Historical Perspective

While CBP’s official mission statement discusses such noble (and critical) roles as guarding our nation’s borders and protecting us against terrorists and instruments of terror, it also mentions “ fostering our Nation’s economic security through lawful international trade and travel.” What do these words mean? Money.

Many people do not realize that the second act of the 1st Congress of the United States, passed on July 4, 1789, authorized the collection of duties and tariffs on imports. Twenty-seven days later, the fifth act of that first Congress established the progenitor of CBP to collect those duties. Congress created Customs (CBP) even before the Bill of Rights.

The reason for this Congressional urgency was money. In 1789, the nation desperately needed to pay the costs of the Revolutionary War. In fact, since 1789, with the exception of temporary taxes and bonds to fund little government projects like the War of 1812 and the Civil War, the sole source of revenue for the U.S. Government was customs duties. This was true for the first 124 years of our nation’s existence, up until the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, which established the income tax systems we know today.

With collecting money so firmly rooted in its DNA, it stands to reason that when economic times get hard for CBP, it returns to its roots and its mission of “economic security.” And now with the sequestration, times are hard for CBP.

Sequestration Squeezes the Agency

Under current sequestration provisions, CBP will have to cut $754 Million, or roughly 6.5% of its budget. The Agency reports that an immediate consequence will be deep cuts in overtime pay for its CBP officers and staff. These cuts, combined with 12-14 day furloughs, means that fewer inspectors will be available at immigration checkpoints, and fewer officers will be available to clear incoming cargo. In addition, we can expect to see longer processing times for bonded-activity applications (like bonded warehouses and container freight stations) and for adjudications of protests and fines, penalty and forfeiture cases.

But these proposed and hypothesized cuts only tell half of the story.

As budgetary times have become harder for the Agency and perhaps in anticipation of the sequestration, we have seen a significant trend in those CBP fines, penalty and forfeiture cases as well as in its adjudication of rulings affecting duties and tariffs. The bottom line is that CBP is looking for more money from its enforcement measures.

Take offers-in-compromise, for example. In penalty cases, if an importer is unable to pay a proposed or levied penalty, the importer can make an offer-in-compromise to the Agency. The importer offers to pay a percentage of the penalty, and usually provides documentation (tax, sales, and banking records) describing the financial straits that render the importer unable to pay the full amount. In years gone by, depending on the circumstances, CBP has been willing to accept pennies on the dollar, often approving offers for 5% – 25% of the original penalty amount.

Recently, however, we have seen offers as high as 50% and 67% of a penalty amount refused by CBP, even though the importer in each case provided documentation that it has steadily lost money in each of the prior three years and didn’t have enough money in the bank to cover the full amount of the penalties. When pressed for additional information on these rejected offers, CBP sources confirmed that the Agency is seeking higher revenues these days. This same mindset explains the trends we have seen in recent months of reduced mitigation of liquidated damages and claims for higher initial penalties than would have been previously expected.

At the same time, we are seeing increased enforcement and revenue collection efforts across a variety of avenues. More and more CBP officers are screening both incoming and outgoing travelers for currency and monetary instrument reporting compliance. Also, the Agency has been challenged by Congress to better enforce antidumping and countervailing duty collection.

The bottom line for importers and travelers for CBP’s budget woes is this: it will take longer to get you and your products into the United States, and if you break any laws, the penalties will be higher and the levels of possible forgiveness will be lower. And if the current negotiations on the sequestration are any indication, we should expect this new status quo for the foreseeable future.