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GAO Suggests Plans to Bolster CBP Trade Enforcement

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently made recommendations to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) suggesting plans to improve and strengthen trade enforcement. These recommendations include adding performance targets in CBP plans that cover high-riskissue areas and developing a long-term hiring plan specific to trade positions in a way that articulates how it will reach its staffing targets.

CBP facilitates legitimate trade entering the US and enforces US trade law. It collects revenue and identified harmful and noncompliant imports, such as counterfeit goods and goods that evade duties. The agency processed over $2.4 trillion in imports through more than 300 ports of entry during Fiscal Year 2015, according to the CBP report. It collected around $46 billion in revenue, making it the second-largest revenue collection agency in the US.

The GAO’s recommendations for CBP follow Congress’ passing of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 in February 2016, codifying many existing CBP capabilities. The act included a request for the GAO to review the efficacy of CBP trade enforcement activities. GAO consequently examined CBP’s organization in carrying out trade enforcement, how it conducts trade enforcement across high-risk issue areas and the extent to which CBP meets its staffing needs for trade.

In its assessment of CBP, GAO found the agency generally does not set performance targets in gauging its achievements and overall effectiveness in trade enforcement. Although GAO cited CBP conducts trade enforcement across seven high-risk Priority Trade Issues — Agricultural Programs, Antidumping and Countervailing Duties (AD/CVD), Import Safety, Intellectual Property Rights, Textiles and Wearing Apparel, Revenue and Trade Agreements and Preference Programs — that have strategic goals, GAO suggested CBP needs “a plan that should identify goals and measures covering each of its program activities and contain targets to assess programs toward performance goals.”

While Congress’ 2016 act mandated CBP develop a joint strategic plan with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that incorporates enforcement activities and performance measures by February 24, 2017, the act does not require the strategic plan include targets. GAO’s audit report cited that according to officials from CBP’s Office of Trade, the agency “is in the process of finalizing plans for those Priority Trade Issues with outdated plans or no plans.”

One point of criticism GAO offered concerning lacking performance goals included how the AD/CVD annual plan for FY 2017 has various enforcement measures, including reporting the number of AC/CVD-related audits, non-audit services, surveys conducted and importers removed from a targeting rule. CBP, however, did not set a target level for performance for these measures.

“Without targets, CBP may not be able to determine the effectiveness of its trade enforcement activities, particularly to see if its projected performance for an activity met its actual results,” the GAO reported, ultimately suggesting the “Office of Trade should include performance targets, when applicable, in addition to performance measures in its Priority Trade Issue strategic and annual plans.”

The second recommendation GAO made to CBP is for it to outline its staffing targets for some of its trade positions, which GAO believes can consequently strengthen CBP trade enforcement efforts.

“Over the past 5 fiscal years, CBP generally has not met the minimum staffing levels set by Congress for four of nine positions that perform customs revenue functions, and it generally has not met the optimal staffing level targets set by the agency for these positions,” GAO stated. “Staffing shortfalls can lead to decreased effectiveness of trade enforcement. … We found that CBP has not articulated how it plans to address challenges to filling staffing gaps for trade positions.”

GAO found that from FY 2012 to FY 2016, the numbers of CBP staff in four of nine mandated trade positions — import specialist, customs auditor, national import specialist and drawback specialist — were below the minimum mandated staffing and optimal staffing levels. The GAO audit also found staffing levels for thesepositions generally declined during this period.

“The Homeland Security Act set the minimum mandated staffing level for import specialists at 984, and CBP’s Resource Optimization Model calculated an optimal staffing level range from 984 to 1,748 import specialists for fiscal years 2015 through 2022,” GAO’s audit report stated. “However, the actual staffing levels were below the mandated levels for 4 of the 5 years, consistently declining in the last 3 years from 954 import specialists at the end of fiscal year 2014 to 917 import specialists at the end of fiscal year 2016.”

The audit report also indicated staffing shortfalls in trade positions could jeopardize CBP’s ability to enforce trade effectively, potentially leading to decreased cargo inspections and reassignment of CBP officers during high periods of traffic volume. While members of the GAO inspected trade ports, some CBP officers reported to GAO investigators that they were withdrawn from trade functions like examining air consignment cargo to temporarily fill shortages of CBP officers needed to screen air passenger traffic.

GAO found that “staffing shortages were largely caused by budget constraints and time needed to train and assign new CBP officers.” Other obstacles in CBP staffing include how hiring priorities are focused on security positions, that there are limited numbers of staff focused on hiring trade positions, that there is a lengthy hiring process and that there are location-based issues in recruitment.

GAO concluded that to remedy the staffing shortage, the “Office of Trade and the Office of Field Operations should develop a long-term hiring plan that articulates how CBP will reach its staffing targets for trade positions set in the Homeland Security Act and the agency’s resource optimization model.”

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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