Seventy members of Congress this week signed a letter to House speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asking that funding for Brand USA be restored after 2020. 

Brand USA is funded by a $10 portion of the $14 Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) fee paid by international travelers who come to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program. The Brand USA portion is matched by its private sector members. 

In a move that appears to have been unintentional, Brand USA was stripped of its public funding after 2020, when the organization needs to be reauthorized by Congress. Established by Congress in 2009 as part of the Travel Promotion Act, Brand USA was reauthorized in 2014 by a House vote of 347 to 57 and is expected to easily be reauthorized again in 2020 -- based on its overwhelming bipartisan support -- but its funding source has been diverted. 

At issue is that the ESTA funding was extended from 2020 to 2027 as an offset of the Bipartisan Budget Act approved in February, but was diverted to the U.S. government's general fund, in what appears to be an unintentional budget shuffle. 

The letter from Congress members asserts that 5.4 million incremental visitors generating $17.7 billion in visitor spending are the result of Brand USA's efforts. 

"Despite its success, Brand USA's future was recently and inadvertently put at risk," the letter states. "We respectfully urge you to work with us to identify a legislative solution this year that will support reauthorization and funding for this important program." 

According to the letter, the diversion of the ESTA funding was "not intended to harm Brand USA."

 

"We're going to double down on our efforts to put the pieces back together as quickly as possible," said Tori Barnes, the U.S. Travel Association's senior vice president for government relations. 

One option being explored is raising the ESTA fee so that the diverted money can stay in the general fund; the increase can fund Brand USA. 

"It's important for us that the program not cost the U.S. taxpayer any money," Barnes said. 

She added that a marginal increase to the $14 ESTA fee was not expected to hurt inbound travel.

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