Q&A: As partisan storms rage, congressman tacks toward the center

'Real world' experiences shape Rep. Kurt Schrader's philosophy
Published on July 24, 2019

As a moderate Democrat in the House of Representatives, Rep. Kurt Schrader is a rarity in a Congress riven by partisan passions. His pro-business, pro-labor centrism clearly resonates with voters of Oregon's 5th Congressional District, who first sent him to the House of Representatives in 2008 and have since reelected him five times.

Before becoming a politician, Dr. Schrader spent more than three decades as a farmer, veterinarian, and businessman. Those "real-world experiences" have shaped the veterinarian's career as a legislator in Washington, D.C., which includes his membership in the Blue Dog Coalition. This caucus of roughly two dozen House members who identify as fiscally responsible, centrist Democrats believe pragmatism, not partisanship, is how the nation's problems will be solved.

Dr. Schrader (Illinois '77) says he evaluates legislation through the prism of a veterinarian and a businessman to determine the potential impacts to animal welfare and livestock production and to small business.

Since his election to the House, Dr. Schrader has sponsored legislation in each congressional session that would freeze pay for members of Congress during a government shutdown as a way of encouraging them to avoid stalemates. During the most recent shutdown, he donated his pay to charity as roughly 800,000 federal employees were furloughed or worked without pay.

Dr. Schrader is an advocate for the veterinary profession and animal welfare in Congress. He and Dr. Ted Yoho (see story), a fellow veterinarian and a Republican member of the House, co-chair the Veterinary Medicine Caucus, which educates colleagues about veterinary-related matters, including food safety, antimicrobials, and biosecurity.

In the current Congress, Dr. Schrader has sponsored the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (HR 693), which designates additional unlawful acts related to the practice of soring horses. The bill also strengthens penalties for violations and improves federal enforcement.

Rep. Schrader
U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader

JAVMA News spoke with Dr. Schrader about how his veterinary career and experience as a businessman influences his work in the House. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How do you expect some of the bills supported by the AVMA will fare in this Congress?

A. A lot of the veterinary-related legislation is not looked upon as particularly partisan, so bills like the PAST Act, I think, should do well in this Congress. Hopefully, the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act might do a little bit better given this particular Congress and its makeup.

Q. How have your experiences as a veterinarian, farmer, and business owner shaped your approach to legislation and policy?

A. Every veterinarian has the two prisms that they look at legislation through. One is things that are good for veterinary medicine and for animals, focusing on making sure we deal appropriately with animal welfare and livestock production. Then the other is the small-business prism. There are very few people in Congress who know anything about business. There are some, but you'd be surprised by how few there are, particularly in leadership. And as a result, they come up with lots of brilliant ideas that are very untenable in the business world. There are a lot of members particularly—and unfortunately on my side of the aisle—who tend to demonize businesses, and that's a shame. We're the ones who create the jobs.

The $15 federal minimum wage legislation is a good example. The federal minimum wage is $7.25—that's ridiculous regardless of where you live in this country. In my neck of the woods in Oregon, farmworkers are already getting $13-$15 easy, as are a lot of lower-wage employees.

Labor is a huge cost for businesses, particularly for small animal practitioners. If you bump up the minimum wage to $15 overnight, these practices could see their labor costs jump by 25 percent, and that's untenable. As a business person, you just know that. I'm co-sponsoring a different bill, the Paying Hourly Americans Stronger Earnings in $15 Wage Act (HR 2080), that raises the federal minimum wage by calculating the regional cost of living and purchasing power. It gets you to $15 but within a more reasonable time frame that reflects the fact that rural America has a different cost structure than the big cities do such as Chicago and San Francisco. At the end of the day, you want everyone to have the same purchasing power.

Q. The Affordable Care Act ended Association Health Plans similar to what the AVMA had offered for years. Now, the insurance plans are slowly reemerging under the current administration. What are your thoughts on this?

A. Some people think that if we have all these separate plans that aren't on the insurance exchange that it dilutes the risk pool of the exchange enough that only really sick people will participate in the exchange. I don't believe that. I believe that so long as people have quality health insurance and are taking care of themselves, they do not fall into the uncompensated care category and do not cost the system a whole lot in terms of extra care, attention, and money.

I'm a big proponent of association plans done correctly. What do I mean by that? That they have all the essential health benefits that most AVMA plans certainly used to have back in the day and that, under the ACA, all insurance plans are supposed to have. The big controversy right now is that under the current administration, in order to drive premiums down, they're allowing different companies to sell plans that don't cover hospitalization, wouldn't cover an ambulance, and don't cover certain prescription drugs. That's not a good plan and not something the AVMA would do. But there are other association plans or one-off plans that are being promulgated by folks who see they can make a buck by offering low premiums and plans that don't provide good health care. I think it's possible to get bipartisan legislation through the House that will add one more tool to the toolbox to provide affordable health care for everybody.

Q. Given the intense partisanship in Congress, is there room for any middle ground?

A. There is. There's a group of folks who understand business: Blue Dog Democrats. We understand fiscal responsibility and believe a very light touch of regulation will get the job done. We are pro-business as well as pro-labor. I think that describes most small business people in this country, and it was natural for me to gravitate toward the coalition. We've had the ability in this new Congress to be very influential and moderate the enthusiasms of some of my well-intentioned, very left-wing progressive colleagues. One such bill had to do with using tax dollars to pay for campaigns. We indicated that is not going to sell in large parts of the country, including in Oregon where I come from. Tax dollars are precious; the last thing a citizen wants is for his or her tax dollars paying for Kurt Schrader's campaign; that's ridiculous. We found a different way. The Blue Dogs are finding ways of making a difference so far.

Q. What are you hearing from veterinarians about the most pressing issues they're facing?

A. College debt and drug shortages are the two biggest issues I hear from my veterinary colleagues. The younger generation is very concerned about the costs of veterinary education. They're graduating with $100,000 to $200,000 in debt—that's unconscionable. We should pass legislation that, at the very least, allows them to refinance. It's critical for us to step up and talk about these issues and make sure folks understand. The nice thing is we're not alone. Student debt is felt throughout the country, particularly in the professional fields. I think there's an opportunity to have a good conversation with pretty much everybody and maybe move the needle a little bit on that.

Related JAVMA content:

Federal veterinarians reflect on career choice following government shutdown (March 15, 2019)

A voice for veterinarians in the US House (Dec. 1, 2008)

Voters return veterinarians to Congress (Jan. 1, 2017)

A horse industry's change of heart (April 15, 2014)