I had the distinct privilege last month of serving on a panel with Adm. Thad Allen, a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and the former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, and acting Customs and Border Protection Chief Operating Officer Tom Winkowski. The forum, entitled “Strategies for Border Management in a Globalized, Networked Environment," was hosted by the Aspen Institute, a prestigious think tank hosting some of the world’s most prominent scholars and thinkers.
Our discussion is available online at Aspen’s website, but I thought there were some interesting items that I’d like to share.
Since the event was held in mid-December, the "fiscal cliff" was on everyone’s minds. Though Congress dealt with the question of taxes in the New Year’s agreement, the spending issue was punted for several weeks, so the specter of the deep spending cuts of sequestration is still very much alive.
Mr. Winkowski assured the audience that CBP, the agency that oversees freight and people coming across our borders, was assessing its options under a possible sequester and that border security would remain robust. Adm. Allen pointed out, however, that even if in the near term we dodge sequestration, the country’s long-term debt situation will not allow for business as usual and that all agencies, including border security agencies, will continue to operate in an environment of uncertainty.
I believe they’re both right. CBP employs some of the finest men and women in the federal government. Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar and his team at CBP will devise creative strategies to ensure our borders remain secure should they be faced with big spending cuts.
But Adm. Allen’s point can’t be discounted. Our federal government, with its over $16 trillion debt won’t be able to fund expansive bureaucracies and ever-expanding social insurance programs forever without some serious changes. A new way of doing business is in order.
This led the panel discussion to public-private partnerships. I believe that in order to manage our borders and the billions in commerce that cross through our ports of entry each year, we must begin to investigate seriously new ways of funding the requisite staff and infrastructure that can keep pace with growing trade flows, which I am hopeful will spike when this soft economy is a thing of the past.
The private sector, local municipalities and state governments have a role to play here. In California, for example, leaders in Imperial County are mulling a plan that would bring private investment to the table to fund an expansion of the Calexico West port of entry.
As Imperial County’s intergovernmental relations director Bob Ham told the Imperial Valley Press, “The only way that we are going to get this port of entry done is if we take the bull by the horns, find our own financing and do it ourselves.”
Unfortunately, current federal law is murky when it comes to these “P3” projects. But legislation in the last Congress would have made them possible, and we remain hopeful that 2013 will have good things in store for border communities looking to positively affect their local ports’ infrastructure.
Finally, a note about Mexico’s new administration.
I was heartened to hear Mr. Winkowski speak in high regard for President Enrique Peña Nieto. We both agree that the new president understands the need for security but that he also clearly recognizes our shared border’s importance to both of our countries’ economic health. I will be visiting with officials from Mexico’s customs service and newly appointed team members within the administration later this month, and I am confident that we will encounter professionals committed to secure and efficient trade flows.
I applaud the Aspen Institute for their willingness to focus on issues that don’t always earn big headlines but that are critical to our security and our overall economic competitiveness. I hope more of Washington’s idea factories will begin to contemplate border management and its implications for our country.
Nelson Balido is the Principal at Balido and Associates, former president of the Border Trade Alliance, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido