Politics, the art of the possible

Symposium prepares organizations for political engagement
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From the procedures they perform to the drugs they prescribe, veterinarians are facing increasing efforts to regulate their profession. In many cases, it is nonveterinarians who are attempting to redefine the practice of veterinary medicine.  

Through its Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., and various councils and committees, the AVMA is highly engaged in the legislative and regulatory processes at the national level.  

But more and more, legislation pertaining to veterinarians is being introduced—and sometimes passed—in state legislatures and city councils. For instance, cat declawing is banned in the city of West Hollywood, Calif. And in Maryland, a veterinary license or veterinary supervision isn't necessary for an acupuncturist to treat animals.  

Such proposals would have little chance of success in the U.S. Congress, due, in part, to the competitive nature of the lawmaking process at the federal level. 

At the lower levels of government, however, it's a different story. Local veterinary organizations might lack the resources to monitor every relevant proposal introduced at the state capitol or city hall. Moreover, some of these groups have little or no experience with fighting potentially negative legislation. 

Last year in Denver, the AVMA House of Delegates and Executive Board approved a plan for helping AVMA constituent organizations counter the legal challenges they face. The plan called for formation of the Task Force on State Legislative and Regulatory Initiatives. 

Part of the seven-member task force's goal is to formulate policy, processes, and a support structure that will enable the AVMA to be a resource to its constituents on state legislative and regulatory initiatives. The group is also to determine the need for AVMA involvement at the state level and the resources necessary to guarantee effectiveness. 

This past July, the HOD directed the task force to analyze how other national professional associations assist constituent associations in managing legislative matters. After issuing its report and recommendations to the Executive Board, the task force will disband. 

The task force hosted a symposium in Chicago, Aug. 14-15, to help teach veterinarians how to shape public policy at the state level. Veterinarians, lawmakers, lobbyists, and attorneys spoke to some 120 attendees about aspects of the political process, from the process itself and those involved, to the need for engagement and ways of doing so effectively. 

Pets or meat?
Society is "tremendously" confused about the role and function of animals, according to Charlie Arnot of CMA Consulting, LLC. "Pets or meat? That's one of the fundamental questions we're dealing with," he said. 

Arnot attributes the confusion to the fact that the majority of Americans are at least three generations removed from the farm. This mass agriculture alienation has given rise to consumers who want to know next to nothing about how their meat, milk, or eggs are produced. 

At the same time, the human-animal bond has never been stronger. It isn't unusual for a person to look on his pet as a member of the family or even as a child. Laws are one way in which this relationship is manifested. 

Nine cities and Rhode Island, for instance, have adopted a version of the pet guardian terminology, Arnot said. Relatedly, at least 10 states are considering noneconomic damages for wrongful injury or death of a pet. 

When it comes to which laws and regulations pertaining to veterinary medicine are adopted and which aren't, indifference is not an option. "The group that defines the issue controls the debate," Arnot explained, praising the AVMA for its policy preferring "pet owner" to "pet guardian." 

Marshall Meyers, executive vice president and general counsel of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, said it is extremely difficult to pass legislation at the federal and state levels. It's much easier, however, to get through at the city and county levels. "This is the most vulnerable area for all of us," Meyers warned. 

During the 2003-2004 legislative session, Meyers said the PIJAC identified more than 11,000 bills throughout the 50 states relating to animals in one form or another, ranging from alligators to zoos. 

Who's driving the train?
It's overly simplistic to blame animal rights activists for every effort to ban ear cropping or tail docking of dogs, and the like. Louisiana State Rep. Michael G. Strain, a veterinarian, said numerous factors and entities influence public opinion and policy. 

Special-interest groups, government, business, the economy, international forces, and highly publicized events can each shape the practice of veterinary medicine, Dr. Strain said. 

He cited three reasons why many veterinarians are not politically active. Veterinarians feel secure as a profession, the number of veterinarians is low because a high level of education is required, and state laws protect the scope of veterinary practice and limit the number of participants. 

The costs of not participating in the legislative process include higher regulation and a loss of discretion. "All politics is local," Dr. Strain said. "You need to watch what is going on locally, and you need to be involved locally." 

Speak softly and carry a big coalition
Task force member, Dr. Lee M. Myers, recommended developing relationships with policy makers before asking for their help. As state veterinarian and assistant commissioner of the Animal Industry Division of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Dr. Myers lobbies for positive policy outcomes affecting animals and agriculture. 

Dr. Myers suggested developing a political agenda, monitoring legislation, crafting position statements, and carefully selecting which battles to fight and which to avoid. 

Other components of effective lobbying are coalition building and knowledge of the legislative process, said Dr. John R. Brooks, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. 

In addition to the ability to identify which committee or legislator is key to neutralizing a bill, veterinarians must be willing to align themselves with credible groups to lend weight to their cause, Dr. Brooks explained. 

The ADA approach
Jon Holtzee, director of state government affairs for the American Dental Association, talked about how dentists have managed public policy issues. 

The ADA serves as an information resource for state constituents by tracking pertinent bills and regulations throughout the states, Holtzee said. State societies are consulted for additional information, and the association will work with dental boards, specialty groups, educators, and students toward a specific end. 

State constituents are autonomous, Holtzee explained, and the ADA does not get involved in a local matter unless specially invited. He likened it to a federalist system, with the national ADA office encouraging constituencies to take a particular action. 

"We urge states to do things," Holtzee said. "We can't command them."