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Homeland security/Law enforcement

Clarifying availability of certain customs fee collections could produce a one-time savings of $640 million

Why Area Is Important

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) collects user fees to recover certain costs incurred for processing, among other things, air and sea passengers; and various private and commercial land, sea, air, and rail carriers and shipments. These fees were created by the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) and are deposited into the Customs User Fee Account. CBP also receives appropriations, including a Salaries and Expenses appropriation. To pay for certain expenses, it reimburses its salaries and expenses appropriation from its COBRA collections.

GAO discovered that CBP has a $639.4 million unobligated balance in its Customs User Fee Account as a result of excess collections from a temporary fee increase and elimination of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) country exemptions from January 1, 1994, to September 30, 1997.

What GAO Found

Clarifying the availability of unobligated balances in CBP's Customs User Fee Account could enable Congress to revise the agency's future appropriations, thereby producing a one-time savings of up to $640 million. When the NAFTA Implementation Act was amended in 1993, in addition to authorizing a temporary increase in the COBRA user fees charged to passengers arriving in the United States from abroad on commercial vessels or aircraft from $5 to $6.50, the amendment also temporarily lifted the exemption for passengers arriving from Mexico, Canada and adjacent islands, and U.S. territories (other than Puerto Rico). The additional amounts collected due to these temporary adjustments, which expired in 1997, were deposited in the Customs User Fee Account and were available for reimbursement of inspection costs, including those related to passenger processing. These funds, which accumulated from January 1, 1994, to September 30, 1997, remain unobligated in the account.

GAO first identified these unobligated balances in 2008. CBP officials stated at that time that although they formerly believed they needed additional authorization to spend these balances, it later appeared that the funds may be used as authorized by law. However, when GAO discussed these unobligated balances again in 2009 and 2010, CBP officials said they provided information on the excess collections to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and requested OMB's assistance multiple times to clarify the availability of these funds. They said OMB has not responded to their request.

Actions Needed

GAO believes this is an issue that Congress may wish to address since these unobligated balances have remained in CBP's Customs User Fee account for more than 10 years. Congress could clarify the purposes for which the $640 million in unobligated balances is available and take action as appropriate.

Framework for Analysis

This analysis is based on reviews of CBP's user fee accounts, which were provided to Congress as technical advice in a Budget Justification Review in the context of GAO's annual review of the President's annual budget request. GAO conducted that work in accordance with all sections of GAO's Quality Assurance Framework that were relevant to its objectives. The framework requires that GAO plan and perform the engagement to obtain sufficient and appropriate evidence to meet its stated objectives and to discuss any limitations in its work. GAO believes that the information and data obtained, and the analysis conducted, provide a reasonable basis for any findings and conclusions.

Area Contact

For additional information about this area, contact Susan Irving at
(202) 512-8288 or irvings@gao.gov.

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