Customs Service - Authority to Fund Overtime and Premium Pay Activities from COBRA User Fees

B-279865: Apr 22, 1999

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The U.S. Customs Service (Customs) collects fees for services under 19 U.S.C. 58c(a). Eight of these fees are known as "COBRA user fees," having been originally established by the Comprehensive Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) of 1985. Pub. L. No. 99-272, 100 Stat. 82,308 (1986); 19 U.S.C. 58c(a)(1)-(8) (1994 & Supp. 1997). Section 58c(f)(3)(A)(i) of title 19, U.S. Code (1994 & Supp. 1997), requires Customs to use the COBRA user fees to reimburse appropriations for the agency's cost of overtime, portions of premium pay, and other specified expenses. The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Treasury questions the use of those fees to cover the cost of activities unrelated to the services for which the COBRA user fees are paid. Recourse to a common understanding about the meaning of the term "user fee" or to general expressions of a law's "basic tenet" cannot overcome the plain meaning of the law's unambiguous language. Accordingly, it is our opinion that Customs may under current law properly use its COBRA user fees to cover expenses as specified by 19 U.S.C. 58c(f) (1994 & Supp. 1997), regardless of their relation to services for which COBRA user fees are paid.