Union Tribune

February 26, 2003

Fight to keep borders open, alliance told
Closing them in crisis may hurt economy, expert says


ARLINGTON, Va. If the United States suffers another serious terrorist attack, government officials are likely to seal border entry points to Mexico and Canada, inflicting grave economic damage in an ill-advised response to the threat, a former Treasury Department official said yesterday.

"Our government agencies will feel compelled to close the border," John Simpson, former deputy assistant secretary for tariff and trade enforcement at the Treasury Department, said at a conference of the Border Trade Alliance. "They'll all want to be seen as doing something in response to a terrorist threat."

Simpson's comments came one day after the federal government's new border chief assured the conference that the government is committed to keeping commerce flowing across the Canadian and Mexican borders.

"Our mandate is not to protect the United States by shutting down the borders," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security.

Simpson, now president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers, conducted what amounted to a mini-seminar in Washington power politics for the Border Trade Alliance, which promotes trade among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

"It is perceived to be politically advantageous to take strident positions on terrorism and homeland security," he said.

To change the government's response, he told the group of business leaders and public officials, they would have to hit politicians "over the head" and play "money politics."

Hutchinson spoke in response to a question about what he would do if the national terror alert system was raised to red, its highest level, indicating imminent attack. He was not asked about policy in the aftermath of a terrorist incident.

Hutchinson said border officials would respond to a red alert by intensifying inspections of suspect vehicles, but he pledged to keep commerce going.

That was good news for those with a stake in the $350 billion in annual trade between the United States and Canada or the $250 billion that flows between the United States and Mexico. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, border officials imposed such a tough inspection regime that trucks and cars were backed up for miles. Twenty-mile tie-ups were reported behind a bridge connecting Detroit with Windsor, Canada.

Simpson predicted that an emergency would quickly overwhelm Hutchinson's good intentions.

"Asa Hutchinson is a highly intelligent man and he will develop highly intelligent policies," Simpson said. "But in a crisis after terrorism, policies somehow have a way of disintegrating."

Simpson suggested that the Trade Alliance study the Capitol Hill maneuvering of such lobbying powerhouses as the National Rifle Association, National Association of Retired People, National Association of Beer Wholesalers and National Rural Electrification Association.

"They don't take a warm and fuzzy approach to politicians," he said. "They make it very clear what they want, and they make it very clear how they will respond if they don't get what they want. They spend their money judiciously, and they are very clear about the expectation that there will be a return."

Simpson warned that "warm and fuzzy arguments" about economic problems resulting from closed borders won't sway politicians. "You just have to hit the suckers over the head. . . . This is going to have to come down to money politics and votes, and that's it."

Jerry Kammer: (202) 737-7681; jerry.kammer@copleydc.com