WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- The House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday approved a bill boosting the number of customs agents at the nation's borders and giving them better technological tools.
The committee's version of H.R. 3129, the Customs Border Protection Act of 2001, now heads to the House floor after passing 20-14 along party lines. The bill would increase the U.S. Customs Service budget to $5 billion over the next two years. Efforts to prevent air- and sea-borne smuggling would get a little more than $180 million in each of the next two fiscal years.
H.R. 3129 gives Customs an additional $25 million in FY 02 to hire about 285 more officers to more fully staff U.S.-Canada border crossings and ports. The agency would get more than $90 million in FY 02 to purchase and deploy advanced X-ray machines, communications gear and surveillance equipment at Mexican, Canadian and Gulf Coast sites. The bill provides $9 million for maintaining the systems during FY 03.
The agency's noncommercial operations would get $886 million in fiscal year 2002 and $909 million the following year, while commercial operations would get about $1.6 billion both years. More than $600 million of the commercial operations funds would go towards creating an advanced computer system for handling border-crossing paperwork and providing a nationwide view of import-export activity. The bill also requires airlines to share computerized passenger and cargo information with Customs to help the agency spot high-risk situations.
The bill's most controversial anti-terrorism provisions involve the agency's search powers and protection from legal liability. H.R. 3129 would expand Customs' officials inspection rights covering ordinary U.S. mail leaving the country, in order to detect and stop weapons of mass destruction or attempts at money laundering. Committee Democrats raised worries about such broad search authority, but Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the committee chairman, said Customs officers wouldn't be able to actually read mail without a search warrant.
The bill would also protect Customs employees from civil suits filed in connection with searches and inspections, as long as the officers "performed the search in good faith." The agency says judges need such a measure in order to swiftly throw out frivolous lawsuits.
Several Democrats, including Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., objected, saying the bill's language could protect officers involved in racial profiling and other misconduct. The committee eventually rejected an amendment from Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., to remove the provision from the bill.
Another major point of dissention dealt with revamping Customs officers' overtime and night shift pay policies. Currently, officers are limited to $30,000 of combined overtime and premium pay per year, but H.R. 3129 would exclude premium pay from the cap and give the Customs Commissioner authority to waive the cap in limited cases.
As for nighttime differential pay, if a customs officer currently works most of a shift before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m., the officer receives extra pay for the entire shift. The bill would limit premium pay to actual hours worked outside the 8-5 timeframe. The premium itself would rise to at least 18 percent of base pay for work between 5 p.m. and midnight, and to 25 percent for work between midnight and 8 a.m.
Committee Democrats, led by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., objected vociferously to the reallocation, pointing to Customs estimates that 2,500 officers, about one-third of its staff, would see smaller paychecks as a result. Under questioning from Stark, Deputy Assistant Customs Commissioner Richard Quinn said the agency didn't ask for the pay changes, and had no opinion on the reallocation.
Thomas pointed out that Customs employees could choose shifts with full differential pay if they want to maintain their income level. Quinn told Thomas that Customs didn't expect the change to affect its operations, but Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., wasn't satisfied with that answer.
Matsui quizzed Quinn on which airport staffs might feel the biggest impact from the reallocation. After lengthy consultation with agency staff, Quinn said the arrival times of European flights mean officers at East Coast airports such as JFK International in New York City would probably be most affected by the change. After lengthy additional debate, the committee rejected Stark's amendment to remove the reallocation from the bill on a party-line, 20-13 vote.