Fast Facts

Since 1789, the U.S. government’s drawback program has encouraged manufacturing and exports by refunding certain customs duties. For example, a merchant who paid duties on imported fabric, made it into clothes, and then exported the clothes could claim a refund for import duties paid. The program refunds about $1 billion a year.

We found problems in how CBP checks these claims. For example, CBP’s new electronic records system doesn’t include enough details on exports. CBP must manually check claims but currently isn’t doing so. It could be issuing refunds it shouldn’t issue.

We made 6 recommendations to address this and other problems.

Example of Potential Drawback

Illustration showing that company imports fabric, pays import charges, manufactures pants using imported fabric, exports manufactured pants, and files drawback claim

Illustration showing that company imports fabric, pays import charges, manufactures pants using imported fabric, exports manufactured pants, and files drawback claim

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 (TFTEA) generally expanded eligibility for the drawback program, which provides refunds to claimants of up to 99 percent of certain customs duties, taxes, and fees. For example, a claimant could claim a drawback refund on exported pants made in the United States using imported foreign fabric. The expansion from TFTEA has resulted in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facing a growing workload. According to CBP officials, the most significant change from TFTEA is that it is now easier to qualify for certain drawback refunds. Industry representatives explained that new claimants are seeking drawback refunds and existing claimants are able to increase claim amounts. However, CBP has not adequately managed the increased workload and has not developed a plan for doing so. As a result, CBP faces delays in processing drawback claims that could result in uncertainty for industry, potentially impeding trade.

GAO Example of One Potential Drawback Claim

GAO Example of One Potential Drawback Claim

CBP has taken some steps to address risks of improper payments in the drawback program, but several risks remain. To help ensure it does not overpay funds, CBP now electronically verifies drawback claims against underlying import information. However, CBP cannot verify drawback claims against underlying export information because it does not maintain detailed information about exports in its new electronic system. To compensate for this lack of automated controls, CBP requires manual full desk reviews of a selection of claims to mitigate improper payment risks. However, CBP has not targeted certain claims for a full desk review since switching to the new system on February 24, 2018. The lack of review for claims, which numbered over 35,000 and represented an estimated $2 billion in claims filed as of August 23, 2019, increases the risk of improper payments.

CBP has not produced a reliable assessment of the economic impact of the changes to drawback refund eligibility because of data availability constraints, systems limitations, and other factors. CBP has not prioritized developing a plan to revisit its economic analysis, although new data and systems capabilities are becoming available. Without such a plan, CBP will not have a reliable assessment of the impact of the changes on industry and government.

Why GAO Did This Study

The United States enacted the drawback program in 1789 to create jobs and encourage manufacturing and exports, according to CBP. CBP has primary responsibility for overseeing the drawback program. It disburses about $1 billion in drawback refunds per year.

According to CBP, TFTEA modernized the drawback program, generally broadening the scope of potential claims and allowing electronic filing starting February 24, 2018. As of February 24, 2019, claimants could only file claims under the drawback statute as amended by TFTEA. TFTEA also included a provision for GAO to assess drawback modernization.

This report examines the extent to which (1) modernization affects drawback refund eligibility and CBP's management of its workload, (2) CBP has taken steps to address risks of improper payments in the program, and (3) CBP has analyzed the impact of the changes to the program on industry and government. GAO reviewed statutory, regulatory, and agency documents, and interviewed agency officials and industry representatives.

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Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations, including that CBP develop a plan for handling its drawback workload, improve its validation activities, and prioritize developing a plan for an economic analysis of the regulation to understand its impact. CBP concurred with all six recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of the Commissioner The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Office of Field Operations, in consultation with the Office of Trade, develops a plan for managing its increased workload. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
CBP concurred with this recommendation and developed a plan to address the increased drawback workload. As of March 2021, CBP is implementing the plan including issuing updated guidance on electronic processing of claims, ruling and privilege applications, and expediting certain low risk claims. CBP also received additional resources from other offices to temporarily support the drawback office.
Office of the Commissioner
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Office of Trade assesses the feasibility of flagging excessive export submissions across multiple claims and takes cost-effective steps, based on the assessment, to prevent over claiming. (Recommendation 2)
Open
CBP agreed with GAO's December 2019 recommendation and described steps it is taking to address it. According to CBP, as of September 2021, CBP has drafted a proposal for flagging excessive export submissions that it expects to finalize, with the trade community's input, by December 2021. The proposal, according to CBP, explores an interim solution in the Automated Commercial Environment. GAO will review CBP's proposal once finalized to determine whether CBP has implemented GAO's recommendation. Because claimants could over claim drawback refunds by using nonexistent, insufficient, or falsified export documentation, or by reusing multiple claims for merchandise that was never exported, having the ability to flag excessive export submissions across multiple claims would enhance CBP's protection against over claiming.
Office of the Commissioner
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Office of Trade develops a plan, with time frames, to establish a reliable system of record for proof of export. (Recommendation 3)
Open
CBP agreed with GAO's December 2019 recommendation and described steps it plans to take to address it. According to CBP, the Automated Export System is insufficient as the sole system of record for electronic proof of export for drawback claims. As of September 2021, CBP said it is evaluating the Electronic Manifest Pilot Program and expects to complete its evaluation by December 2022. GAO will review CBP's plan once finalized to determine whether CBP has implemented GAO's recommendation. Until CBP implements effective control activities for the drawback program, the government may be subject to revenue loss through duplicate or excessive claims for drawback related to export information.
Office of the Commissioner
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Office of Trade turns the claim selection feature in ACE back on and finalizes and implements procedures to target claims for review that were accepted into ACE during the period in which the selection feature was disabled. (Recommendation 4)
Open
CBP agreed with GAO's December 2019 recommendation and described steps it plans to take to address it. According to CBP, the ACE claim selection feature is used in conjunction with other methods to review claims. As of September 2021, CBP said it is planning to enable the ACE claim selection feature and retroactively assess the claims accepted during the lapse period, as appropriate, by January 2022. GAO will continue to monitor the status of any efforts to enable the ACE claim selection feature and implement procedures to target claims for review that were accepted into ACE during the period in which the claim selection feature was disabled. Without enabling the claim selection feature or finalizing and implementing procedures to retroactively target claims for review, CBP may miss opportunities to protect U.S. trade revenue from improper payments of drawback claims.
Office of the Commissioner The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Office of Trade analyzes the results of its targeting of claims for review and designs responses to mitigate identified risks. (Recommendation 5)
Closed - Implemented
CBP concurred with this recommendation and has taken corrective action in response. Specifically, CBP officials told us that, in March 2020, CBP completed an analysis of the data captured in CBP's claim processing system, which identified variations in staff recording of certain data elements for claims targeted for review. As a result, CBP provided training to staff and our review of the training materials show that CBP addressed the deficiencies it identified.
Office of the Commissioner The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Office of Trade prioritizes developing a plan to conduct an ex post analysis of the impact on industry and government of key changes to the drawback program, including time frames and methodology. (Recommendation 6)
Closed - Implemented
CBP concurred with this recommendation. In July 2020, CBP finalized a preliminary plan to conduct an ex post analysis of the impact on industry and government of key changes to the drawback program. CBP's analytical plan included a timeline and methodology for assessing changes to the program.

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