Veterinarians: quiet contributors to nation's policy

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Food safety, small-business tax relief, and animal well-being during air travel. The AVMA has had something to say to Congress on all these issues. Often with little recognition, veterinarians have helped shape public policy on matters ranging from the kinds of drugs used to treat animals to the food-animal products allowed across US borders.

Although much of the nation may not realize it, veterinary contributions go far beyond just keeping the family pet healthy. The federal government is the top employer of veterinarians, who help ensure a safe, abundant food supply and protect human and animal populations from domestic and foreign diseases.

Dr. Michael Blackwell
Dr. Michael Blackwell, chief of staff for the surgeon general's office, talks about the mental health effects of the human-animal bond.

The AVMA has long understood the importance of participating in the political process. Working through its Governmental Relations Division in Washington, DC, the Association encourages science-based decisions from policy makers on matters affecting veterinary interests, while pressing for a lighter tax burden on practice-owning and/or tax-paying veterinarians.

During their visit to the nation's capital, April 9-11, AVMA Executive Board and House Advisory Committee (HAC) members heard from federal regulators, congressional staffers, lobbyists, senators, and congressmen on the necessity for veterinarians to maintain a presence inside the Beltway.

While on the Hill, board and HAC members also lobbied their elected officials for passage of a bill repealing tax legislation that includes a provision prohibiting businesses that use the accrual method of accounting from selling assets in installments and spreading out their tax liability for capital gains (see JAVMA, March 15, 2000, page 814).

Much has changed since the board's last visit in 1998. The public has become more aware that its infection-fighting antibiotic supply is threatened by resistant pathogens, leading to calls for tighter control of animal drugs; new members have joined Congress and the AVMA's Executive Board and HAC; and just this past year the AVMA Council on Governmental Affairs was replaced by the coalition-based Legislative Advisory Committee.

AVMA president, Dr. Leonard F. Seda framed the visit as an opportunity for board and HAC members to interact with the very officials who regulate the profession. "Our hope is that by partnering through these kinds of events, we'll continue to build the relationships that will fulfill our public trust."

At a dinner the first night, invited speakers representing a host of government agencies and interest groups emphasized how the AVMA has assisted in matters of policy. They credited the Association with bringing Congress' attention to certain veterinary-related issues, and for pressing for much-needed funding in areas such as the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank.

Meat and poultry products are safer because the AVMA supported implementation of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points at a growing number of federally inspected slaughter plants.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA-CVM, said that without the AVMA's contributions to the judicious-use guidelines for antimicrobial drugs and the use of therapeutic antimicrobial drugs in food animals, the agency would not be where it is today in limiting antimicrobial resistance. The United States "leads the world on this issue," he said.

Warning against the trend of assigning scientific decisions to politicians, as is the case in Europe, rather than science-based regulatory agencies, Dr. Sundlof encouraged the AVMA to continue its international activities, and added that more veterinarians need to serve on international committees making decisions affecting veterinary medicine.

"There is an increasing pressure on regulators and elected officials to base decisions on consumer preferences when science does not support those positions," he said. "Once we stray from the path of science in making public health decisions, we'll find ourselves hopelessly adrift and buffeted by the fickle and ever-changing winds of special interest advocates and politicians."

Speaking about the rise in globalization, Dr. Dan Sheesley, assistant deputy administrator for trade with USDA-APHIS' International Services division, said that APHIS has veterinary officers stationed abroad monitoring foreign animal diseases that threaten US interests.

Limited funding, however, has led to staff shortages in the international division, and vital initiatives have been put on hold. Dr. Sheesley noted that a program to prevent hog cholera in the Dominican Republic from entering Puerto Rico and, subsequently, the United States, had to be shelved.

It is imperative that, in this and other instances, the AVMA "raise its voice [so that] Congress understands what we're fighting," he said.

In a similar appeal, Rep Leonard Boswell (D-IA), during a courtesy meeting with Executive Board and HAC members, expressed his concern over the nation's ability to control exotic animal diseases. The USDA requested $9 million in the fiscal 2001 budget to begin modernization of the National Animal Disease Center, located in the Iowa congressman's district in Ames.

"[The upgrade] needs to happen, and I'd like to see it happen a lot faster," Rep Boswell said. He asked that the board and HAC members speak to their elected officials about supporting additional funding for the research center.

A great deal of the board members' time in Washington, DC, was spent learning the fine art of effective lobbying. Prepared by the AVMA-GRD staff, the sessions were titled, "Players, process, politics, and possibilities." Board and HAC members were told that constituents are the most important people to a politician, more so than lobbyists, because politicians are ultimately focused on getting reelected.

"Any politician will listen to a lobbyist, but they'll respond to a voter," said Joel Blackwell, who runs a media relations and grassroots lobbying firm in Reston, Va.

Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) explained that the relationship between a constituent and an elected official can be the deciding factor on whether the legislator will support a bill. Most politicians, the congressman said, will not co-sponsor a bill if constituents in their district oppose it.

Representative Farr advised the board and HAC members that veterinary interests have the best chance of being realized when the professional veterinary voice is organized at the local level.

Grassroots mobilization, then, is a primary key to successfully influencing legislation. Coalitions are another way to shape policy; they not only lend credibility to a given issue, but coalition members help monitor the approximately 12,000 bills introduced in a congressional year for provisions that may have bearing on their interests.

John Keeling Jr, vice president of the Animal Health Institute's legislative and public affairs division, summarized the significance of coalitions. "The short fact of it is, you really can't get what you want done in this town by yourself." The AHI, which represents the manufacturers of animal drugs, is a member of around 50 coalitions, Keeling said, yet is a "core" member of only a handful.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT)
Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) dropped by to talk about small-business issues, a subject close to the senator's heart because more than 90 percent of Montana employees work for small businesses.

The AVMA itself is a member of several coalitions whose agendas vary from animal health to biomedical research, and has participated in many ad hoc coalitions. The Legislative Advisory Committee, which met for the first time this past October (see JAVMA, Dec 15, 1999, page 1760), was designed with the intent of uniting the assorted groups in veterinary medicine and, potentially, those groups with similar interests, to inform the Executive Board in responses to federal policy proposals.

Political consultant Ed Grefe, who advises the Legislative Advisory Committee, ended the meeting with a number of recommendations for ways the AVMA can wield greater legislative influence. In addition to increasing its efforts to educate members about the importance of participation in the political and Political Action Committee processes, Grefe suggested the GRD host an annual event in Washington, DC, honoring noteworthy veterinarians, such as Dr. Tracey McNamara, who was instrumental in identifying the West Nile encephalitic outbreak in the Northeast last year.

The potential to energize veterinarians' interest in politics exists by expanding the focus of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues to include political involvement, Grefe said.

Commenting after the meeting, AVMA vice president, Dr. Joseph H. Kinnarney called the experience "eye-opening." No newcomer to the political arena, he feels he can do a better job as an elected official in the Association because his knowledge of the legislative process has been enhanced.

One result of the trip is the AVMA has become more visible on Capitol Hill, he said, but he believes not enough veterinarians are politically active. "We all agree that we are a very shining, bright profession in the eyes of the consumer, but unless our legislators hear from us and know the needs of their constituents, we'll be left out of the race."