Trade groups back Bersin confirmation
A group of 11 trade associations on Wednesday wrote Senate Finance Committee leaders urging a favorable recommendation to confirm Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin, whose future as head of the agency remains in limbo.
President Obama re-nominated Bersin for the position on Jan. 26.
'Customs and Border Protection needs a dynamic leader that is capable of transformative leadership skills to appropriately modernize and change the agency for the betterment of security and trade. Mr. Bersin is this dynamic leader. He has already set in motion meaningful change and his leadership is needed to ensure this continues,' the joint letter said.
Bersin has served as a recess appointment without Senate confirmation since March 27, 2010. His recess appointment expires at the end of the year and he will be out of office unless he is confirmed by the Senate.
The president originally forwarded Bersin's nomination to the Senate on Sept. 29, 2009, but the request languished after the Finance Committee caught wind that Bersin had failed to comply with a technicality of immigration law. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services requires employers to verify an employee's identity, establish that they are legally eligible to work in the United States, and keep the information on file on an I-9 form. Bersin said he had done all the checks and had the information, but not on an I-9 document.
Obama used a constitutional loophole to install Bersin on an interim basis when Congress was on vacation — in recess. The White House could utilize the recess-appointment process again, but Bersin would have to work without pay, according to a legal analysis by the Congressional Research Service. Such a move would also further damage relations with the Finance Committee.
Trade groups fear the clock is running out on Bersin just as he has begun to breathe life into the agency's trade functions, which they believe have been neglected for years while attention was focused on border security. Even private sector officials who haven't made up their minds about whether Bersin deserves credit for trying to streamline regulatory compliance and oversight of imports and exports worry that if he leaves the agency will operate in a vacuum again without strong leadership from a presidential appointee.
CBP operated for more than a year with two acting commissioners from agency's civil ranks until Bersin took over. Political observers doubt the administration would nominate someone in a presidential election year or that the Senate would confirm them for a job that might end a few short months afterward if Obama isn't re-elected beyond January 2013. Industry officials are very nervous that the agency could lack a politically appointed commissioner for another two years, given how long the confirmation process could take for a new nominee in 2013. They also worry Bersin would become a lame duck as the year progresses without congressional support.
Bersin was grilled by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus at a hearing last June over the immigration violation. Baucus, a proponent of Customs reforms that would place greater priority on trade facilitation and enforcement, strongly questioned whether Bersin had the background or desire to streamline compliance burdens for businesses.
In its letter, the trade coalition disputed that notion.
'We have had the opportunity to work with Mr. Bersin for the past year and have been impressed by the change that he is pursuing for the agency. First, Mr. Bersin has taken significant steps to increase outreach to and participation from the private sector on many issues. Almost immediately upon assuming the responsibilities of commissioner, he sought our input and responded proactively by initiating action on a number of our recommendations. Second, Mr. Bersin is an advocate for modernizing CBP and is working jointly within CBP and with industry to accomplish that goal. Lastly, he has listened to concerns raised by Congress and industry by repeatedly stating that enhanced security and trade facilitation are not mutually exclusive,' the group said.
Bersin and senior agency leaders met for several hours with representatives of the air cargo industry, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Association of Floral Importers of Florida, and the American Trucking Associations three weeks ago in his office as part of a regular dialogue he has established to discuss issues impacting international trade.
How the Finance Committee will handle Bersin's confirmation is unclear given Baucus' stern rebuke of Baucus last year and his ill feelings toward the White House for going around the regular confirmation process through a recess appointment.
Industry officials privately say it would be ironic for Baucus to block Bersin's confirmation when he is actually making progress on the senator's agenda to help expedite trade and crack down on counterfeiters and other violators of trade law.
The letter was signed by the following organizations:
' National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America.
' American Association of Exporters and Importers.
' American Trucking Associations.
' Business Coalition for Customs Modernization.
' Express Association of America, representing couriers such as UPS and FedEx.
' Joint Industry Group.
' National Industrial Transportation League.
' National Retail Federation.
' U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.
' U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
' World Shipping Council.
(Read an analysis of Bersin's audition to be the permanent CBP commissioner in the February issue.) ' Eric Kulisch