The Executive Board, House Advisory Committee members, and guests on the steps of the Capitol
The cherry blossoms were in full bloom this April when the AVMA Executive Board and House Advisory Committee arrived in Washington, D.C., for their biennial visit.
The trips to the nation's capital began in 1987 as a hands-on way of updating AVMA leaders about the Association's legislative priorities and activities. Through its Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., the AVMA encourages science-based decisions from policy makers on matters pertaining to animal health and welfare, as well as the veterinary profession itself. Issues range from drug availability to small business matters.
During their April 7-9 visit, AVMA leaders got a crash course in how Washington works and GRD activities. The trip culminated in meetings with senators and representatives or their staff to gain support for the Minor Use Minor Species Animal Health Act (H.R. 1956/S. 1346). Some leaders also asked their representatives to co-sponsor a bill (S. 736) requiring that the chief of the Army Veterinary Corps be a general.
The AVMA, animal drug industry, and many species groups consider the MUMS bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr. of Mississippi and Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a critical piece of legislation. It creates new ways of providing labeled drugs for use in minor species animal health management programs and also addresses improved major species animal health through minor uses.
At the request of board and committee members, a number of senators and representatives added their names to the list of co-sponsors. Other members were left with the impression that their representatives would support the MUMS bill.
AVMA Governmental Relations Division Director Niall Finnegan (left) and Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid discuss the Minor Use Minor Species Animal Health Act.
AVMA leaders heard from current and former AVMA/AVMAF Congressional Science Fellows about their experiences working for lawmakers or as part of congressional staff to shape public policy (see page 1602).
GRD staff provided an overview of the issues the Washington office is working on. These include gaining board certification pay for all government scientists, banning the interstate shipment of birds for fighting purposes, stronger enforcement of humane slaughter laws, defeating a bill mandating socialization standards at puppy mills, increased funding for the Animal Care Division of the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and supporting additional funding for enhancing the nation's veterinary diagnostic laboratories.
Members also heard from experts about how Congress operates, ways to lobby effectively, and how a bill becomes a law. Well-known Washington public affairs consultant Michael E. Dunn said the U.S. political system is predicated on the idea that special interest groups such as the AVMA would be part of the policy-making process.
It makes sense, Dunn explained, to consult the experts when drafting legislation. "If you want a policy to reflect reality, you better have people who live that reality every single day help you make that policy," he said.
Keynote speaker Gregory Casey, the Senate's 34th sergeant at arms and doorkeeper who now heads the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, explained the new preeminence of the PAC in Washington, post campaign finance reform. No longer will "soft money" contributions-unlimited donations to political parties-provide access or gain the attention of lawmakers. Instead, the new law makes PACs the preferred source of campaign funding.
Nevada senator and veterinarian John Ensign (left) and Dr. James E. Nave, AVMA immediate past president
"It's back to the PACs," Casey said. Noting that only seven percent of AVMA members contribute to the AVMA PAC, he added, "I look at a group like yours and I see this tremendous unused potential."
Leaders from the Minor Use Minor Species and Association Health Care coalitions provided updates about their respective bills. The Association Health Care Coalition supports legislation that would federalize insurance standards so that professional associations such as the AVMA could offer health insurance to their members and their members' employees in every state (see JAVMA, May 1, 2002, page 1273).
On the final day of the visit, Executive Board and House Advisory Committee members fanned out across Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives. Dr. Robert Dietl, District VI representative to the Executive Board, met with Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. "We talked to him about the MUMS [bill]," Dr. Dietl recalled. "He sounded pretty interested, and we told him we were interested in getting him to sign on as a co-sponsor."
Dr. Dietl has since followed up with letters to his representatives, asking whether they had signed on as co-sponsors to the bill or needed additional information. What's more, he encouraged the president of the Minnesota VMA to write the state's lawmakers in support of the MUMS bill.
This trickle-down effect is a positive outcome of the visits to the capital, according to HAC Chair David L. McCrystle. This was Dr. McCrystle's second visit. He believes these help AVMA leaders better understand the need for the Association to be engaged in the legislative process. The leaders then inform their constituents about legislation important to the profession, while also encouraging them to lobby for AVMA initiatives.