Customs looking for import of funds
- By Judi Hasson
- Apr 10, 2000
The U.S. Customs Service needs new computers at its borders and at least
$1 billion to pay for them. But finding the money is no easy task, according
to congressional testimony April 4. The Treasury Department arrived hat-in-hand
at the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees Treasury's budget,
seeking money to bandage an aging import-processing system and funds to
start up a new one.
Despite ample evidence that Customs computers are breaking down regularly — as often as 100 times a month — no one is quite sure where to find the
money to replace the aging Automated Commercial System (ACS), a DOS-based
system that processes imports on a piecemeal basis.
"The urgency of the requirement to modernize Customs' import information
processing system is no longer debatable," said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.),
the subcommittee chairman. "How will we pay for this $1.2 billion project?"
The Clinton administration has one idea — raising money from importers.
But lawmakers don't like the idea of charging a user fee on goods imported
across U.S. borders before the new system, the Automated Commercial Environment
(ACE), is up and running.
"You would be imposing a fee for a service not yet provided during a
period where no one benefits from it," said Rep. John Sununu (R-N.H.).
James Flyzik, Treasury's chief information officer, told the subcommittee
that the agency had found about $7 million to pay its consultants for this
year, but that it needs an additional $5 million. Another $123 million is
needed just to patch ACS and keep it operating. And $210 million is needed
for the first year of ACE.
"We need to get Customs into the mainstream of the market and the mainstream
of technology," Flyzik said.
"The center of a global economy cannot run on obsolete computer systems
and a "patch-it-when-it-breaks' game plan," said Harris Miller, president
of the Information Technology Association of America, who also testified.
Officials pointed to the headaches over the troubled Internal Revenue Service
modernization program, which will require $5 billion and 15 years to complete.
Customs' needs are more urgent, officials said.
Importers have long complained that the Customs automation system is
obsolete, facing regular brownouts and blackouts and failing to deliver
a "paperless border crossing." Customs oversees the movement of more than
$2 trillion in trade across U.S. borders and collects $22 billion annually
in duties and fees. But its aging computer system makes it impossible to
keep pace with the private sector.
"The problem is [that] the current system is program-med to do business
the way they did it 12 years ago. It is still locked in old technologies,"
said S.W. Hall Jr., Customs' CIO.
Kolbe said it is urgent to find a way to pay for modernization because
Customs "remains tethered to processes that are legendary of its traditional
way of doing business — transaction by transaction and, in most cases, on
Regardless of how soon money is available for modernization, the government
will still have to keep ACS running for about four years until the new system
has been phased in.
"It will take several years to build it. We'll be spending a lot of
money on it, but it won't be up and operating," said John Simpson, the deputy
assistant secretary of Treasury for regulatory, tariff and trade enforcement.
Earlier this year, a coalition of business and retail groups — including
auto-makers, Kmart Corp. and even McDonald's — banded together to pressure
Congress to fund $1.2 billion to modernize ACS. In an unusual alliance,
the group of more than 400 trade organizations and companies said aging
computers at every U.S. port are slowing the importation of goods, and costing
time and money.