When the curtain rose Jan. 3 on the 110th Congress, President Bush, for the first time of his administration, found himself facing a Congress controlled entirely by the opposition. For the next two years, Democrats, as the majority party in the House and Senate, will determine which legislation has a shot at becoming law, meaning Bush and Democrats must work together if anything is to get done.
What effect this new dynamic will have on the AVMA's legislative agenda remains to be seen. According to Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., the AVMA GRD has excellent working relationships with members on both sides of the aisle. However, Dr. Lutschaunig feels that a Congress controlled by the Democrats will be more sympathetic to animal welfare issues.
Looking back at how the Association fared during the 109th Congress, (First Session, 2005; Second Session, 2006) when Republicans held sway, the AVMA celebrated passage of laws mandating the inclusion of pets and service animals in state and local disaster plans (Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act) and cracking down on animal rights extremists targeting laboratories, circuses, and other animal enterprises (Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act).
The Captive Primate Safety Act and Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, AVMA-supported bills, each passed the Senate but were tied up in committee in the House. Additionally, House and Senate committees passed the Antifreeze Bittering Act, yet the legislation did not come up for a vote in either chamber. Dr. Lutschaunig expects all three bills will be reintroduced and passed during the new Congress.
The past Congress saw the AVMA working closely with the Humane Society of the United States and American Kennel Club on legislation that would bring federal oversight to large-scale pet breeders who sell directly to the public and over the Internet.
While he was AVMA president, Dr. Henry E. Childers testified before a Senate subcommittee in November 2005 about the merits of the Pet Animal Welfare Statute. The legislation would have created protections for puppies and kittens bred by a segment of the pet industry criticized for operating below acceptable welfare standards. The legislation has had many variations, but the PAWS bill was still in committee in both the Senate and House when the congressional session expired in December. Moreover, Rick Santorum, the bill's chief sponsor in the Senate, was defeated in the November midterm elections.
At the end of the congressional session, the AVMA worked with the AKC and HSUS to resolve concerns with the original PAWS bill. Dr. Lutschaunig is confident that a bill will reappear in the 110th Congress, especially since Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's number two Democrat, supported the proposal.
"Now it's a matter of keeping the stakeholders together, and finding a Republican sponsor in the Senate that could sponsor it with Sen. Durbin," Dr. Lutschaunig said.
Lobbying isn't just about getting laws enacted. It also entails preventing ill-conceived legislation from getting to the president's desk. One such initiative is the high-profile American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Championed by the HSUS, the bill would ban the slaughter of horses whose meat is exported to France, Japan, and other countries where horse meat is a delicacy.
The AVMA is one of some 200 groups in a coalition opposed to the legislation because, among other things, it fails to address the welfare of thousands of unwanted horses that would be affected by the bill. Dr. Bonnie V. Beaver, a former AVMA president, testified before a House subcommittee in July that the law could lead to the unintended suffering of several thousand unwanted horses.
"The (bill) does not provide the financial support required to ensure that horses given up by their owners are adequately cared for, and inadequate funding has a huge potential to create opportunities for inadequate care," Dr. Beaver said at the time.
Nevertheless, the emotionally charged bill passed the House with bipartisan support. The Senate, however, didn't act on the bill before the session expired, and it will have to be reintroduced, which is almost certain to happen.
"It'll have to go through the same process it went through in the 109th Congress," Dr. Lutschaunig said. "The bill had strong bipartisan support, and I think it might get a more favorable response with the Democrats, but it's tough to say this early in the session."
Since the AVMA Executive Board has designated the horse slaughter bill for active pursuit of defeat, the GRD has dedicated considerable time and effort to doing just that. The Washington staff, as directed by the board, is also charged with helping draft legislation addressing welfare needs of the estimated 100,000-plus unwanted horses as an alternative to the flawed slaughter bill.
In Washington, the HSUS is the major player from an animal rights/animal protection perspective, Dr. Lutschaunig explained. The organization, which has nearly 10 million members, is effective at fundraising and mobilizing the grassroots, and adept at communications. "The HSUS is very good at framing the message and presenting the issue in a way that makes it hard for members of Congress to oppose," he said.
When lobbying for or against a bill, the AVMA comes at it from a scientific standpoint that takes into account the ramifications of a particular policy. Still, Dr. Lutschaunig believes the AVMA can work harder at getting its message across. "We need to do a better job at communicating with members of Congress and with the public as to why we take specific stands on legislation," he said.
The road ahead
When the AVMA Legislative Advisory Committee meets this March, its members will be updating the Association's legislative agenda and submitting it to the Executive Board for approval. The Legislative Advisory Committee will analyze new pieces of legislation introduced in the new Congress, reintroduced pieces of legislation from the 109th Congress, and funding priorities previously authorized by the board.
In the previous Congress, the AVMA was working to pass legislation that would ease the financial burdens for small business owners to provide health care for their employees (Small Business Health Fairness Act), expand federal funding for infrastructure development at veterinary colleges to increase the number of critically needed veterinarians (Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act), include all animal species slaughtered for commercial use under federal inspection (Humane Methods of Slaughter Act amendment), and reauthorize the farm bill, an omnibus, multiyear authorizing law dealing with major farm and food legislation.
Funding priorities include a student loan repayment program for veterinarians who agree to serve in underserved areas (National Veterinary Medical Service Act), the Office of Minor Use and Minor Species in the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, and research improving animal health and productivity.
The current AVMA legislative agenda is available on the Advocacy section of the AVMA Web site, www.avma.org. Click on Federal and then Legislative activities.
AVMA Washington convention
Dr. Lutschaunig is looking forward to the 2007 AVMA Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. He expects it will be a chance for attendees to see the legislative process and the importance for veterinarians to be involved. "It's a great opportunity for the AVMA and the GRD to promote involvement in the legislative process," he said.