A heart for politics

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Dr. John Melcher has been a fixture in the nation's capital since 1969 when the Montana veterinarian was first sworn into the House of Representatives. After serving a total of four terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate—becoming the first veterinarian to do so—and was reelected once before narrowly losing to his Republican challenger in 1988.

Soon afterward, Dr. Melcher came to work for the AVMA, where, for more than a decade, he has been using his knowledge and influence to help bring about the AVMA's legislative agenda.

That agenda includes such successes as passage of the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act, Minor Use and Minor Species Animal Health Act, Animal Drug User Fee Act, and National Veterinary Medical Service Act, and restoring the general's star to the chief of the Army Veterinary Corps—not to mention the bills the AVMA has helped prevent becoming law.

These victories are notable, given the monumental challenges of getting any piece of legislation passed. They also stand out when one considers the AVMA's small size and influence compared with such titan lobbies as the AARP and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Much of the credit is attributable to the AVMA Executive Board's engagement in the policy-making process through the Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., as well as with the Legislative Advisory Committee and political action committee.

But Dr. Melcher, the unassuming, ever-smiling octogenarian who moves about Capitol Hill freely, thanks to his senatorial credentials, is a key reason for the AVMA's effectiveness. The AVMA recognized those efforts with its Meritorious Service Award in July 2003.

Dr. Michael Chaddock, director of the Washington office, struggles for the right words describing the former senator's value not only as a consultant, but also as a mentor and visionary. Since joining the AVMA GRD two years ago, Dr. Chaddock has seen Dr. Melcher at work. "Everybody knows John Melcher on the Hill," he said. "From the Capitol policemen to the janitors to the secretaries and, obviously, the members of Congress, they all know him. His biggest asset for us is his personality. He gets along with people and opens doors."

In addition to his expertise on the policy-making process, Dr. Melcher has a keen knack for knowing where people are on a particular issue. "He's worth his weight in gold," Dr. Chaddock said.

When he's not busy with AVMA business or walking Ben, his 7-year-old Lhasa Apso, Dr. Melcher sometimes consults for Food for Peace and the Burmese Mountain Dog Association. "My daughter has five of them," he explains sheepishly.

But Dr. Melcher is blunt about the services he provides as a consultant for the AVMA. "What I do is lobby," he says without apology. "I'm not one of those who thinks lobbying is shameful. Lobbying is one way that the public can let Congress and the Executive Branch know what is important and how bills ought to be shaped. That's what I do for the AVMA, and I'm very proud of it."

It's a safe assumption that politics is in Dr. Melcher's blood. His politics is more than that, however, more a matter of the heart. "I loved veterinary practicing, but I also loved the community where my family was living. I asked myself: what was I giving back?" he said.

Dr. Melcher's answer was to run for public office. Three years after graduating from Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1950, Dr. Melcher became an alderman in Forsyth, Mont. He was elected mayor in 1955 and reelected for two additional terms. From there, he won a seat in the state House of Representatives and then in the state Senate.

Dr. Melcher lost his first bid for Congress as a Democratic nominee from Montana's 2nd District in 1966, but he won a special election for the seat in June 1969. When he was elected to the Senate in 1976, Dr. Melcher was the only veterinarian serving in Congress. (Today, there are two veterinarians in the Senate: Wayne Allard of Colorado and John Ensign of Nevada.)

While in the Senate, Dr. Melcher was a strong proponent of agricultural funding and regulating the strip-mining industry. Food distribution was as important as food production for Dr. Melcher, who fought to feed the hungry overseas and the malnourished in America.

And, true to the veterinary oath taken all those years before, Dr. Melcher worked also on behalf of animals. He authored the 1985 amendments to the Animal Welfare Act requiring the Agriculture Department to issue regulations for a physical environment promoting the psychologic well-being of nonhuman primates.

After Dr. Melcher's 35 years in public office finally came to an end in 1988, Colman McCarthy, a reporter with The Washington Post, described his work in the Senate as having helped "farmers, miners, the elderly, the hungry and a constituency of the world's poor.

"If all those who had been helped by him—from Washington's homeless women to the Bangladesh starving—could have voted in Montana, (Dr. Melcher) would always have run unopposed."

Instead of swapping the controlled chaos of politics for a life of quiet retirement in the wilderness and open spaces of Montana, Dr. Melcher and his wife, Ruth, decided to remain in Washington to see what more he could do.

The high level of influence the AVMA has with Congress on animal health matters is "amazing," Dr. Melcher said. He first encountered it as a days-old congressman when he asked then Speaker of the House, John McCormick, for help getting appointed to the House Agriculture Committee.

"He said, 'Doctor, of course I'm going to help you. You are the only veterinarian we have and we're so delighted to have you here,'" Dr. Melcher recalled. "Having that kind of acceptance from the speaker, I thought, was unusual. It wasn't me; it was because I was a veterinarian."

Dr. Melcher soon found his colleagues in the House deferring to him on questions of animal health and even human health. "Throughout the years," he said, "what we have established very effectively in the Congress is that yes, we have an opinion; yes, our opinion is worthwhile; and yes, we are part of the broad field of medicine.

"The presence (the AVMA) reflects isn't so much a handful of veterinarians lobbying. It reflects the attitude and the respect resulting from individual veterinarians working over the years throughout the country and being recognized as experts in animal care. They lay the groundwork for the AVMA when we speak to members of Congress about matters affecting veterinary medicine."

Despite the veterinary profession's stellar credentials among members of Congress, the AVMA cannot be idle. Now more than ever, well focused and highly funded animal protection organizations are telling lawmakers that they, not the AVMA, know what's best for animals. Moreover, they're pressing Congress to introduce greater regulations over animal use.

One reason the public respects veterinarians is because of their advocacy for animal welfare. Yet every day, that respect is tested on Capitol Hill. "We've got to safeguard that," Dr. Melcher said. "It isn't as if you pass a test and it never comes up again. The test comes up every day, and it comes up in a host of bills."

Take the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act currently under consideration by Congress. The bill died last session. But strong support among lawmakers and the public resurrected it this session. Then as now, the AVMA opposes the bill because it fails to properly address the welfare needs of the thousands of unwanted horses that would result from the law. The burden of cutting through the emotion and clearly explaining these problems to Congress and the public falls on the shoulders of veterinarians, according to Dr. Melcher.

The Washington office is also trying to secure funding for the National Veterinary Medical Service Act. Signed into law nearly two years ago, Congress has yet to fund the program that will help the debt load for some recent veterinary graduates.

Persistence is key to getting things done in Washington. Dr. Melcher offered an instructive episode from his days in the House when he introduced a bill authorizing $10 million for animal research—a modest sum even during the mid-1970s. Although it cleared the House, the session ended before the Senate could take it up. So he introduced the bill in the new session, with the House and Senate passing it handily.

Then, while on recess at his home in Forsyth, Mont., Dr. Melcher got a call. It was President Gerald Ford. "We knew each other well from time in the House together," Dr. Melcher recalled. "He called me to say, 'John, I'm sorry. I know you've worked to get that bill passed. You actually got it out of the House twice, but I called just to tell you it's going to be my first veto.'

"I was shocked. 'Why is that, Mr. President?' He said, 'It's a new program and we're having no new programs.' 'But research in animal health is not new, Mr. President,' I replied. 'Yes, but (the bill) is a new slant. I'm very sorry, John, I hate to tell you this, but I have to do it.'

"So I thanked him for calling me; it was very nice of him," Dr. Melcher said, still amused by the event. Dr. Melcher brought the bill back, for a third time, but this time during the Carter administration, which signed it into law."

"Persistence is what it's all about," Dr. Melcher said. "And what you can't get in one Congress, you try to get in another Congress."