Change was the dominant theme when U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s trade advisory group met virtually on March 17, for its first quarterly meeting of 2021. As the COVID-19 pandemic marked its first anniversary, members of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee, known as COAC, met with CBP’s new Acting Commissioner Troy A. Miller for the first time. Miller, who has been leading the agency since mid-January, co-chaired the public gathering and emphasized the importance of having a strong partnership with the trade community.
“What’s been clear to me in my almost two months now at the helm is how important partnerships such as the COAC are to CBP’s ability to improve and evolve while understanding any potential impacts to industry,” said Miller, a CBP senior official who began his career as a customs inspector in North Dakota 28 years ago, and most recently was the director of field operations for CBP’s New York Field Office.
“As you know, the dual task of facilitating commerce and enforcing trade laws is only going to get more complex and challenging. In order to confront future threats, we need the commitment of our CBP participants and private sector partners to work together,” said Miller, adding that “CBP will remain committed to the COAC process and to collaborating with our private sector partners.”
In support of the agency’s commitment, CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert E. Perez announced the creation of the 21st Century Customs Framework Task Force, a joint government/industry group that will help refine and advance the transformational reforms needed to bring U.S. trade into the 21st century. “The expansion of the global marketplace has fundamentally altered how trade is conducted,” said Perez. “It continues to accelerate, it continues to evolve, it continues to morph, and absolutely creates an imperative for all of us here in the U.S. government to act,” said Perez. “The task force that we’re launching will help make sure that we address modernization barriers, eliminate outdated requirements, and provide sufficient legal flexibility to implement the 21st Century Customs Framework modernization strategy and its vision over time.”
Perez explained that the task force will emphasize transparency, collaboration, and aggressively pursue solutions that “hit the mark on what we need to do to bring trade into the 21st century.”
In his opening remarks, Acting Commissioner Miller also shared statistics of illicit COVID-19-related products that were seized by CBP over the last year. These include more than 177,500 FDA-prohibited COVID-19 test kits, more than 30 million counterfeit facemasks, nearly 37,000 EPA-prohibited anti-virus lanyards, nearly 38,000 FDA-prohibited chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine tablets, more than 6,000 antibiotic tablets, and nearly 300,000 hand sanitizers. “These are just a few examples of what we continue to do to keep our public and our healthcare sector safe,” said Miller.
On a heartfelt note, Miller announced that Brenda Smith, the executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Trade was retiring. “I want to thank you, Brenda, for your decades of service to U.S. Customs, to CBP, and your mentorship to me throughout my career,” he said. “Throughout your career, you have helped CBP and industry modernize trade practices for the 21st century. Your leadership has demonstrated the type of government-industry collaboration that makes this country and our public safer.”
Others chimed in about Smith too. “She has played such a critical role in interfacing with the trade community and providing support in so many ways through her thoughtful and deliberate process,” said Lenny Feldman, one of the COAC trade co-chairs and a senior member of the Sandler, Travis, & Rosenberg law firm.
Many of the COAC members also recognized Steven Graham, a CBP international trade liaison and licensed customs broker, who will be retiring soon as well. “Steve has been an integral part of a number of the working groups and really has kept us on track,” said COAC member Michael Young, the vice president of business process and system for OOCL, a container shipping and logistics service company. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if not for the work and support that Steve provided. He will be sorely missed.”
On behalf of the COAC, Feldman spoke about the challenges of the past year. “It’s really incredible and somewhat daunting to reflect upon the fact that this month marks one year since we commenced our new normal due to the coronavirus. So much has changed. Not only for each of us personally and professionally, but also in the trade space,” said Feldman. “We have addressed challenges and opportunities due in part to an unprecedented flow of e-commerce and small package commercial trade, port congestion, shipping costs, and a tough evolving trade agenda and policy that continues.”
Feldman also noted that the “COAC has been and will continue to be very vocal regarding the 21st Century Customs Framework,” a transformative approach for the future of trade. “We were pleased to hear about the task force that CBP is putting in place and we encourage CBP to continue to engage beyond the COAC. Through dialogue, debate, and deliberation we will arrive at the best product and blueprint for the future of trade. Working together will result in the strongest plan and future for the whole of U.S. industry.”
COAC trade co-chair Brian White, the director of global logistics and trade compliance for The J.M. Smucker Company, expressed appreciation for CBP’s vision. “We’re hopeful that this new 21st Century Framework Task Force will provide an opportunity for stakeholders to weigh in on these legislative changes that CBP and other government agencies seek to put forth to Congress. The trade community has been a strong advocate and has really been driving to see advancement toward a coordinated border management approach,” said White.
“Everyone is familiar with the Single Window concept,” White continued. “We’ve made a lot of good progress in this over the last decade, but there are still a lot of opportunities here, and we really have to seize this moment in time to fully engage with all the government agencies that play a role in cross-border regulatory enforcement to collectively define what the future of cross-border trade will look like,” said White. “We can only achieve a 21st century trade framework if all the relevant stakeholders are fully engaged and are committed to achieving a shared and collective vision among each other.”
The meeting, which also was co-chaired by Timothy Skud, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s deputy assistant secretary of tax, trade, and tariff policy, included updates on trade programs and COAC subcommittee work. At the meeting, 12 recommendations were presented and unanimously passed. Eight of the recommendations pertained to intellectual property rights and the remaining four focused on forced labor.
Announcements were made regarding the next COAC meeting, which will be held virtually on June 23, 2021, as well as an additional opportunity for the public to engage with CBP virtually via webcast July 20-22. “Unfortunately, we can’t meet in person this year,” said Miller. “I realize this is a missed opportunity, especially for me, to be together and network, but we will do everything we can to meet in person again next year.”
COAC is a 20-member advisory committee that was established by Congress in 1987. The committee provides advice and recommendations to CBP and the Department of the Treasury on the commercial operations of CBP and trade-related interdepartmental functions. Some of the issues that COAC focuses on include enhanced border and supply chain security, international efforts to harmonize customs practices and procedures, import safety, compliance, and modernization and automation processes used to facilitate trade.