Customs system suffers yet another brownout

Customs system suffers yet another brownout

The Customs Service's 17-year-old Automated Commercial System (ACS) suffered another brownout last week, delaying shipments of imported goods at U.S. ports and border crossings.

The brownout disrupted "the flow of over $8.8 billion of goods" across the nation's borders, a trade group complained in a letter to members of Congress. When a brownout occurs, as has happened several times during the last year, Customs reverts to using paper documentation, which takes longer than using the computerized system.

Customs would like to streamline the process and modernize its computer networks by building a new system called the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE). But Congress has failed to allocate funds for ACE during the past two budget cycles.

A trade group called the Coalition for Customs Automation Funding is trying to build support for ACE as Congress considers the administration's fiscal 2001 budget. The coalition and Rep. Steven Kuykendall, R-Calif., organized a meeting Friday to air the problems that face importers, exporters, port authorities, manufacturers and retailers.

Some companies face disruption in manufacturing if there are delays at the border. "We only keep four hours worth of auto parts in stock," said Kevin Smith, director of customs administration at General Motors Corp. If shipments of parts from Mexico and Canada are delayed, GM must stop production of cars, he said.

Under ACS, border clearance for a truck carrying parts to GM plants takes three to four hours. ACE would slash that to just 15 seconds. GM is one of the participants in a prototype that is testing the ideas and technologies for ACE.

Meeting moderator George Wiese, a former Customs commissioner, said he "has not yet found anybody that disagrees with what [Customs and the international trade community] are trying to achieve."

"So what's the problem?" Wiese asked. "We can't get it to high enough of a priority. There's a lot of finger-pointing going on."

One sticking point is how to pay for the new system. The Clinton administration has proposed increasing import fees, a plan criticized by importers and many in the Republican Congress as an unacceptable tax increase.

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