Veterans advocates say two medical research construction projects included in the Clinton administration's 1995 budget are unneeded pork projects that are eating up scarce resources in the tight Department of Veterans Affairs budget.
At a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee this month, VA Secretary Jesse Brown was asked by several members about plans to construct research facilities in Portland, Ore., and Huntington, W.Va., at a cost of $26 million. Those two projects compose nearly a quarter of the VA's major construction budget for 1995.
Critics claim the two facilities were not previously on the VA's listing of high-priority projects.
Mr. Brown acknowledged that the West Virginia project had been ranked 298 out of 380 projects on the VA's priority list, while the Oregon project was not even ranked. Mr. Brown said the projects were approved at the "request of the administration" but wouldn't elaborate on the circumstances of the request or the reasons behind it.
But some executives of veterans organizations noted that the facilities would be located in the states represented by the chairman and minority leader of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Republican Mark Hatfield of Oregon.
The VA construction budget has been a continuing subject of controversy.
Last year, the House passed a measure allowing Congress to oversee the construction site selection process. That measure stalled but will be revived this year, a House VA committee aide said.
Overall, the VA construction budget was slashed from $571 million in fiscal 1994, which began last October, to $314 million in the fiscal 1995 budget proposed by President Clinton. The research budget also was reduced by $41 million to $211 million for 1995.
Those reductions had advocates questioning why the VA would construct $26 million in research facilities at a time when the research budget was being reduced.
"This whole process was suppose to be depoliticized, but the VA has corrupted the process," said Dennis Cullinan, deputy director of national legislative services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Resources are very scarce and then for them to be spent on projects that aren't even priorities by their own admission, that is questionable."
Two House VA committee members, Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) and Tim Penny (D-Minn.), sent a letter last week to Mr. Brown questioning the construction plan. An aide to Mr. Bachus said the two members would offer an amendment to the budget to kill the two new research facilities and shift the money saved to the research budget.