Budget Impasse May

Exacerbate VA Backlog

Progress the Department of Veterans Affairs has made in slashing a huge backlog of benefit requests could be threatened if Congress fails to approve a federal budget by February, VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said.

Principi said he increased the agency's compensation and pension work force over the past year by 1,200 people and they helped cut the backlog of claims from 600,000 in March.

He had planned to hire 150 additional employees, including some registered nurses whose medical training would help them navigate the complex disability claim system.

"If we don't get a budget by January, February, I'm going to start cutting back" on new hires, Principi said in a recent interview.

When the 2002 fiscal year concluded in September, VA had reduced the backlog on claims of all types to 470,205. Disability claims fell from a March high of 422,935 to 348,702.

Ex-Prosecutor Named

Acting Chief of INS

Michael Garcia, a former federal prosecutor who specialized in terrorism cases, will serve as acting commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service beginning Saturday, the Justice Department announced yesterday.

Garcia was chosen by President Bush to take over for INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar, whose term ends Saturday. Ziglar had announced he would leave the troubled agency and the government this fall.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said Garcia "will lead tough enforcement of our immigration laws to protect Americans from terrorism and secure our homeland."

The INS came under heightened scrutiny after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which exposed gaps in the nation's border enforcement.

Garcia will help transfer most of the agency's duties to the new Homeland Security Department. The law abolishes the INS and creates two bureaus within the new agency, one for border security and one for citizenship and benefits.

Garcia has been the assistant secretary for export enforcement at the Commerce Department since August 2001.

Lab Practices Decried

In Watchdog Report

Enforcement of a federal law meant to track the movement of dangerous pathogens among U.S. laboratories is fraught with problems, posing an "urgent and potentially serious public health threat," congressional auditors said in a letter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, charged with enforcing the law, said it is already working to fix the problems.

The General Accounting Office investigation was prompted by last fall's anthrax attacks, when it became clear no one knew how many U.S. labs had the microbe sent through the mail. That made it harder to pinpoint the source of the anthrax and the person who mailed it.

Reenlistment Program

Cited for Overruns

A military program that encourages soldiers with special skills to reenlist has more than tripled in cost and gone far over budget, congressional auditors said.

The cost of the Selective Reenlistment Bonus program has soared over five years -- to $789 million this year from $235 million in 1997 -- in part because the services aren't sticking to their own guidelines, the General Accounting Office said.

The Defense Department said the increases followed years in which the Pentagon was intentionally cutting jobs and reducing spending on bonuses. The increases reflected the difficulty of retaining skilled workers in the strong economy of the late 1990s. The department also rejected GAO's claim that it is not adequately overseeing the program.

-- From News Services