Customs wants funds for import system

The Clinton administration's proposal to fund a new computer system for the Customs Service through a user fee met stiff opposition yesterday in the Senate, but members agreed that the system still must be funded.

The Customs Service wants $1.4 billion for its Automated Commercial Environment to speed up cargo clearance and examination procedures for the $1 trillion worth of imports coming into the United States every year. Customs has been using a prototype of the ACE system at select ports and now wants to roll it out nationwide over the next four years.

Customs uses the older Automated Commercial System to collect data from importers about what they are bringing across the border. The data is used to assess whether the shipments need to be inspected and to collect tariffs. In most cases, this information is filed when, or shortly before, goods enter the country. Last year, ACS processed 19 million trade entries—10 percent more than the previous year.

"We clearly need a new system," Raymond Kelly, commissioner of Customs, told the Senate Finance Committee. ACE would replace Customs' 16-year-old ACS.The proposed increase in the current user fee would raise money during fiscal 2000, and Customs could use that money to begin rolling out ACE in fiscal 2001.

But Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee looked unfavorably on the proposed increase in the user fee. "It is clear Congress is not going to adopt this fee," Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) said.

However, Gramm and other senators agreed with Kelly that it is time to replace Customs' old system. The funds might have to be taken from another information technology program, Gramm suggested. "We're talking about a relatively small amount of money," he said. "We just need to find a way to come up with this money."

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