Industry pressures Hill to fund Customs system
- By Judi Hasson
- Mar 12, 2000
A coalition of business and retail groups — including automakers, Kmart
Corp. and even McDonald's — are banding together to pressure Congress to
fund $1.2 billion to modernize the Customs Service's antiquated computer
system. In an unusual alliance, the group of more than 400 trade organizations
and companies say aging computers at every U.S. port are slowing the importation
of goods, costing time and money.
"People are feeling the urgency because the system that Customs is using
is 16 years old. In computer life, that's ridiculous. It's just not big
enough to handle the demand," said Robin Lanier, chairwoman of the Coalition
for Customs Automation Funding.
The Customs Service installed Customs' Automated Commercial System at
301 ports of entry in the mid-1980s and has not kept up with updating systems
that handle more than $1 trillion in goods per year.
"U.S. manufacturers, retailers and consumers rely on the smooth flow
of goods across our borders. Disruption to Customs systems...ultimately
[result] in higher costs for producers and consumers alike," the coalition
said in a March 8 letter to members of the House of Representatives.
Customs' DOS-based system crashed for several hours last week, disrupting
the flow of more than $8.8 billion worth of goods. The system has been plagued
in recent years by brownouts, slowdowns and a crash in 1998 that lasted
six days, halting goods at the border.
Customs has tried to patch the system, but "most people think those
are Band-Aids and that the system will start experiencing problems in the
middle of this year," Lanier said.
The Senate Budget Committee is considering adding $200 million to the
Treasury's budget appropriations for fiscal 2001 to help pay for a new system — ACE, the Automated Commercial Environment — but no deal has been finalized.
House budgeteers plan to add money to the project's budget, but may stretch
the four-year plan to six years.
Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee
that oversees Customs and other Treasury Department agencies, said the funding
debate is being "compromised by its link to user fees and unlikely to be
"This enormous modernization effort is a priority that calls for positive,
responsible action — not walking away from making hard choices," Kolbe wrote
in a Feb. 16 letter to Customs Service Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Last month, Customs said it would have to suspend a pilot project for
the new system because of lack of funds. The project enabled Detroit automakers
to electronically clear parts and supplies from Canada. Last week, Treasury
found $3 million for the pilot project, but lawmakers and retailers remain
angry at the way the issue was handled.
Part of the problem, they say, is that the Clinton administration is
willing to fund the new system but wants to impose a user fee on importers
to pay for it.