AVMA leadership press legislative agenda in Washington

Executive Board, HAC engage in political process
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AVMA Executive Board and House Advisory CommitteeMembers of the AVMA Executive Board and House Advisory Committee were in Washington, D.C., this April for their biennial trip to the nation's capital.

The visits started in 1987 as a way for AVMA leaders not only to learn about the Association's legislative activities, but to also participate in the process.

On this latest visit, AVMA President Jack O. Walther testified before a Senate subcommittee about the need for federal funding to help states manage chronic wasting disease (see JAVMA, May 15, 2004).

Additionally, the board approved a recommendation to purchase a new office building for the AVMA Governmental Relations Division (see page 1727); the transaction is pending.

Staff of the GRD facilitated the April 4-6 visit, which included briefings from key government veterinarians and meetings with each member's elected representative or senators to advance the AVMA's legislative agenda.

Keynote speaker Dr. Lonnie King spoke about the future of veterinary medicine. "The most serious challenge to veterinary medicine is to reestablish our social responsibilities," said Dr. King, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University.

Dr. King predicted that the next five years would present the greatest opportunities in the history of veterinary medicine.

The veterinary profession, he explained, must expand to meet evolving societal needs. This requires veterinarians to work in such areas as biomedical research, food safety, public health, and ecosystem management.

"I'm worried that we're not meeting these challenges," Dr. King said. "The future waits for no one; there are other people who will fill the void."

On the first full day of the legislative visit, several public veterinarians spoke about the government's efforts to protect human and animal health, as well as to guard against bio- and agroterrorist attacks.

Executive Board and HAC members heard from veterinarians with the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security; U.S. Army Veterinary Corps; U.S. Public Health Service; and the Homeland Security Council.

Dr. Ron DeHaven of the USDA spoke about the nation's declining animal health infrastructure. (At the time, Dr. DeHaven was head of the Veterinary Services division of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; he has since been promoted to APHIS administrator.)

Between 1983 and 2003, Veterinary Services staff declined by more than 50 percent, he said. At the same time, state animal health personnel dropped by 40 percent.

"We're victims of our own success," Dr. DeHaven explained. "As we have successfully gone about the business of eradicating diseases like brucellosis, the infrastructure(s) that we have for dealing with those diseases have declined at the same time."

But outbreaks of avian influence and exotic Newcastle disease and the diagnosis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington state convinced Congress that animal diseases continue to threaten the nation. Dr. DeHaven noted recent budgetary increases for emergency management and animal disease surveillance systems.

Later that day at the Capitol, political pundits Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson of CNN's "Crossfire" offered insights on such topics as the war in Iraq and the presidential election in November.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee stopped by to welcome the Executive Board and HAC to the Capitol and say a few words about the importance of veterinary medicine.

Political consultant Stephanie Vance taught the AVMA leaders a crash course in effective lobbying. The life of a U.S. senator or congressperson is incredibly hectic, so it is easy for them to forget about your issue, she said.

When meeting with the official or a staff member, it is important for them to know that you're a constituent and exactly what you want from them. "You have to ask them to make a decision," Vance said. "You have to get them to agree to co-sponsor a bill or whatever it is you want."

AVMA consultant and former senator, Dr. John Melcher, talked about the power of coalitions to pass or block legislation. "We can't pass anything here that would help us as veterinarians without being part of a broad coalition," he said.

"We as a group must always be looking for anyone who can help us get a vote in a committee or on the floor (of the House or Senate)," Dr. Melcher explained.

Coalitions make for strange bedfellows, he added. Organizations may disagree on every issue except the one that brings them together in a coalition.

Afterward, GRD staff provided an overview of the AVMA's legislative agenda for the 108th Congress. These are bills the Executive Board has identified for AVMA support or opposition.

On the final day of their visit, board and HAC members took to the Hill to ask their elected representatives to support or oppose particular legislation.

For information about the AVMA's legislative priorities, contact the AVMA Governmental Relations Division at (800) 321-1473, or visit https://www.avma.org/Advocacy/National/Pages/default.aspx.