The continuing resolution to fund government operations through Sept. 30 may give the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the flexibility to avoid staff furloughs for now, Assistant Commissioner of International Trade Alan S. Gina told a trade group April 3.
The $984 billion legislation crafted by the Senate and signed by President Obama on March 27, continues the budget sequester but provides for continued government operations through the end of Fiscal Year 2013. It also addresses funding under appropriations bills governing several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes CBP.
Language in the legislation appears to allow CBP to shift previously off-limits money from other functional areas to cover personnel expenses, Gina said. If it does, the agency will use those funds to cover staffing costs and—at least for now—eliminate the need to furlough staff.
The language is subject to interpretation, however, and the agency's Office of Finance is working to determine what the bill actually allows, he said.
Gina spoke to attendees of the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade (CONECT) 17th Annual Northeast Trade and Transportation Conference in Newport, R.I.
Gina cautioned that even if CBP's assessment of the legislation is correct, the agency would still have to get approval from the Senate and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to shift money from one area to another. "We're in a much better place now, but a lot of discussion still has to ensue before we can say anything definitive on furloughs," he said.
CBP had previously said that effective April 21, it would require employees to take two days of unpaid leave each month in response to budget cuts mandated under the Budget Control Act of 2011. (See "Delays likely as U.S. Customs plans furloughs in response to sequester budget cuts.")
Asked whether the trade community should expect service degradation or delays due to budget cuts, Gina said, "I do not believe we will have problems with delays. Hopefully with the Senate bill we'll be able to maintain the current level of service."
He did not specifically discuss previously mandated reductions in overtime staffing considered crucial to process and clear cargo at the nation's busiest ports of entry. An April 4 statement on CBP's website about the possible restoration of overtime duty was noncommittal, saying only that port directors had identified "current activities, duties, and hours of operation that could be adjusted to mitigate the impact of the significant reductions in expenditures" mandated by the sequester.
Customs' participation at the conference was affected by the sequester. Because the agency has suspended all nonessential travel, Gina spoke to the group via video hookup from Washington. Leon Hayward, Assistant Director, Trade and Cargo Security, and Director of CBP's Pharmaceuticals, Health, and Chemicals Center of Excellence, spoke in person about customs policy but drove up from New York on his personal time to do so.