July 18, 2003

Commentary

Two bills affecting the border - Two very different results

Hunter and Domenici bills illustrate Congress’ bipolar approach to border affairs.

By Garrick Taylor

Bipolar disorder is a medical condition that causes extreme mood changes that alternate between episodes of deep depression and extreme happiness. That condition’s political equivalent, Bipolar Border Disorder, is a condition in which two Members of Congress from the same political party can introduce legislation affecting U.S. borders wherein one bill can induce fits of happiness, while the other induces great sadness.

Those of us who live and work throughout the border region are all too familiar with the devastating condition that is Bipolar Border Disorder. Just when we think Congress is beginning to understand the challenges of living and working in the border region, that august body makes us think it’s more Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll.

Two bills were introduced recently that illustrate Congress’ continuing struggle with this debilitating affliction.

S. 539 / H.R. 1096: The Border Infrastructure and Technology Modernization Act

This bill, whose Senate version was introduced by New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) and whose House version is being shepherded by Congressman Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), directs much needed resources to our shared borders with Canada and Mexico.

The legislation, which as of this writing had 14 cosponsors of both the Senate and House versions, authorizes funding for the hiring of 100 full-time Customs agents and 200 full-time inspectors. Anyone familiar with border operations knows that adequate staffing is key to developing a trading environment that is secure while allowing for the speedy passage of legitimate cargo and travelers.

The bill also funds an update of a General Services Administration border infrastructure study completed in 2000. Assessments such as these are crucial for border communities and the Federal Government to accurately plan new inspection facility construction and expansion projects.

Finally, the bill directs the Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security to carry out “a technology demonstration program to test and evaluate new port of entry technologies, refine port of entry technologies and operational concepts, and train personnel under realistic conditions” at three to five land border ports of entry. For those of us in the cross-border trade community clamoring for new technology, this is an excellent opportunity to finally see some results.

Not all bills in Congress look upon the border so positively, however. One, in fact, would grind border trade to halt.

H.R. 1392: To require inspection of all cargo on commercial trucks and vessels entering the United States

This bill, sponsored by El Cajon area Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), states simply: No cargo transported by a commercial motor vehicle may enter the United States from Canada or Mexico, and no cargo transported by vessel may be unloaded in the United States, unless an appropriate officer or employee of the Directorate of Border and Transportation Security or other appropriate officer or employee of the United States has inspected the cargo to ensure that it complies with the laws of the United States.

Just like that. In less than 100 words, Congress could seal the border and, in turn, cut the U.S. off from the global economy.

Security experts are unanimous in concluding that inspection at the port of discharge is too late. The damage is done if the dangerous cargo reaches the U.S. As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, we need to push inspections away from the border. Many existing ports of entry are hamstrung by physical limitations preventing the minimum expansion necessary to accommodate an increase in freight inspection, personnel, and traffic congestion.

While all of us in the trade community are eager to work with Congress and the Department of Homeland Security in crafting creative ideas to create a secure trading environment, the concept of risk management must prevail. Bills such as H.R. 1392, while unlikely to pass (at press time the bill had only eight cosponsors), would clearly cause more harm than good.

Bipolar Border Disorder is a debilitating condition for our border communities. Those of us in the cross-border trade community need to keep the pressure on our friends in Congress to work to find a cure. Without it, we may continue to suffer more bad days at the border than good.

Garrick Taylor is the Director of Policy Development for the Border Trade Alliance. Visit the BTA’s new website at www.thebta.org.

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