"I anticipate that one of our biggest challenges this year will be the attempt to ban certain antimicrobials from being used in food animal medicine ... It's going to be a challenge and something we're going to have to work very hard to educate members of Congress and their staffs about judicious antimicrobial use in food animals, and why this is critical for healthy animals and a safe food supply."
—DR. MARK LUTSCHAUNIG, DIRECTOR, AVMA GOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS DIVISION
Barack Obama's election to the presidency has implications not just for the United States and the world but, in less dramatic ways, the power and influence of the Obama White House will also be felt by the veterinary profession.
Obama's cabinet appointments, for example, especially to the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, have implications for regulations concerning food safety and animal welfare. Moreover, Democrats have strengthened their majorities in Congress, where legislation banning horse slaughter and limiting antimicrobial drug use in food animals could gain momentum.
Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., spoke to JAVMA News about the political climate in the nation's capital and what he thinks the AVMA can expect in the coming years.
How do you see the AVMA's legislative agenda faring in the Obama administration and a Democratically controlled Congress?
In the past, because we're nonpartisan, we've worked with both the Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, so my hope is because of those relationships, we're able to move our legislative agenda. However, certain things are going to be more difficult. For example, on any of the funding issues on our appropriations agenda, I think it's going to be very difficult to get an increase in funding for existing programs, such as the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, and even more difficult to obtain funding for new programs. In general, those programs have support from Congress, but given the economic climate, I think we're in for an uphill battle to obtain the funding to implement the programs.
Obama has named former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Food and Drug Administration. If Daschle's confirmed, how do you expect animal drugs will be affected?
We've always had a good relationship with former Senator Daschle. In his new position, Daschle will be a prominent player in health care reform, and any potential changes to the Food and Drug Administration. At this point I do not anticipate changes in the way animal drugs are approved. However, we could potentially see more regulatory activity on antimicrobials used in food animal production.
Should veterinarians worry that animal drugs will be withdrawn or restricted in an effort to protect infection-fighting drugs in human medicine?
I anticipate that one of our biggest challenges this year will be the attempt to ban certain antimicrobials from being used in food animal medicine. I think that's going to come up in the first session of Congress. What's happened in the past couple months, with Congressman (Henry) Waxman replacing Chairman (John) Dingell on the Energy and Commerce Committee, creates a climate more sympathetic to the proponents of those advocating for the ban. It's going to be a challenge and something we're going to have to work very hard to educate members of Congress and their staffs about judicious antimicrobial use in food animals, and why this is critical for healthy animals and a safe food supply.
What do you think about Obama's selection of Tom Vilsack as Agriculture secretary?
The AVMA congratulates Mr. Vilsack on his nomination for the U.S. secretary of Agriculture. As the former governor of Iowa, Mr. Vilsack understands the challenges facing animal agriculture and rural communities. We look forward to working with Secretary Vilsack and his team on initiatives such as the shortage of food animal veterinarians, and the shortage of veterinarians working in rural America. His support of rural communities will hopefully lead to support for the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, a loan repayment program that places veterinarians in underserved geographic and professional areas of veterinary medicine.
Does the political climate favor groups such as the Humane Society of the United States when it comes to animal welfare or will science drive policy?
Overall, HSUS has really been working very hard in the past few years on the political side getting members of Congress elected who are favorable to their policy positions. I think in this Congress we'll see more initiatives by HSUS, especially in the area of food animal welfare.
Do you expect antihorse slaughter legislation will be passed in the 111th Congress?
We will definitely see the bills introduced in the 111th Congress. In the past, proponents of the bill have had varying levels of success in the House and Senate. At the end of this year, we saw a reworked bill introduced and referred to the Judiciary Committee, which passed the bill at the end of September. The proponents will continue to push for passage, despite of the reports of increased abandonment and neglect as the result of the poor economy and high feed prices. The bill will have a better chance of passing in the new Congress than it did in the 110th Congress.
What will Democrats do in the area of veterinary education? Do you think they'll help veterinarians pay down their student loans?
Education is a nonpartisan issue, and we've had support from both Republicans and Democrats in the past. In some instances, especially when we're going to go to them to ask for more funding, it's going to be more difficult, not because they don't appreciate our programs, but because of the economic climate and federal deficit. If we are going to meet societal demands for veterinary services in the future, we must continue to advocate for increased federal support for our veterinary schools, and funding for the National Veterinary Medical Service Act loan repayment program.
What about the economy? Can veterinary practices expect much help?
Like other businesses, the recession will have some impact on practice revenue. While veterinary practices will not receive direct help (i.e., a bailout), they will benefit indirectly from the present (and future) actions of Congress: credit should be easier to obtain; interest rates should be lower; jobs will be created that will increase consumer spending; and taxes will not be raised. On the other hand, I think we're going to see more regulation in the years ahead, and that's something we'll be closely monitoring to ensure that any regulations put in place are needed, science-based and minimally impact veterinary practices. I anticipate the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which played a minimal part in the Bush administration, will be more prominent in the Obama administration.
There is a veterinarian in the Senate and one newly elected to the House. How will the AVMA work with these colleagues in this Congress?
We will work to establish strong relationships with Senator (John) Ensign and Congressman (Kurt) Schrader in the next Congress and will work closely with them on issues affecting animals and the profession.