Rep. Ralph Abraham has been a veterinarian, physician, and lieutenant in a National Guard airborne division.
He hopes to become Louisiana's next governor. He faces a primary election in October and, potentially, Gov. John Bel Edwards in November.
The Republican congressman from Monroe, Louisiana, represents the state's 5th Congressional District, which covers more than 14,000 square miles of the state's north and east, running along the borders of Arkansas and Mississippi. He grew up in that district, on a small family farm with the cattle and horses that piqued his interest in animals, and he was a veterinarian there for 10 years before becoming a physician.
Since becoming a congressman in January 2015, Dr. Abraham (Louisiana State '80) has introduced 31 bills on topics such as improving roads and other infrastructure in rural areas with high unemployment and funding research on chronic wasting disease, which has been found in all of Louisiana's neighbors.
Dr. Abraham talked with JAVMA News about his political career. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why are you running for governor?
A. The state is going in a direction that I don't like. We've lost thousands and thousands of residents in Louisiana because we just don't have any business opportunity in our state that is—you know, we're just losing people. And with a state such as Louisiana that has so many natural resources—from agriculture to oil and gas to timber—and we certainly have a unique culture in Louisiana. We have some of, in my opinion, the best people in the world. But they're leaving, and I don't want that to happen now. Going back to the fiscal area, our taxes are some of the highest in the nation. And, you know, we're going to stop that. We're going to hopefully move the state in, certainly, what I consider a more positive direction.
Q. Are there any changes you would like to make that veterinarians might find interesting?
A. The cost of a veterinary medical degree now can be hundreds of thousands (of dollars). So we've got these students who are getting these student loans. And we both know that sometimes those things are difficult to pay back. So, I know there's a movement to enhance the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, which I think was established exclusively for the veterinarian population. And I certainly support that.
Q. What roles should Congress and state governments have in addressing student debt in the veterinary profession?
A. I think it's Congress' role. We're addressing it in all professions, whether it's human medicine, law, you name it. We know that, second to mortgage debt, student loan debt is the highest debt in the nation. And it impacts everyone because that debt, if not paid—or certainly if it is not serviced—that rolls back onto the general taxpayer community. Somebody has to pay the bill, and we want to make it easier for veterinary medicine students to do that.
Q. What do you think could be done to help those with debt or to prevent debt from accumulating?
A. To keep the debt from accumulating, I think there's got to certainly be more education on the front end—when those students first get accepted to a professional school—to show them some real numbers and plug it into an income that they're more than likely going to start out with—whether that debt is serviceable. The other thing is, once the debt is incurred, we certainly want to make it easier to repay. And I know, with this loan repayment program, that veterinarians who practice in certain shortage areas can receive some loan repayment for each year of service. That helps those young veterinarians not only manage the cost of education, but it also helps them get great hands-on experience and start practicing serious medicine immediately.
Q. I also saw that this year you're sponsoring a bill that would authorize the National Academy of Sciences to do research on CWD transmission.
A. For CWD—like all the spongiform diseases—we, in many cases, don't even know how it's transmitted. And my bill would specifically fund some of that research on transmission. Certainly, we would love to see a vaccine down the road. But until we get to that point, we just need to understand the disease. I don't think we're there yet.
Q. What bills are you putting together?
A. In the 116th Congress that we're in now, unfortunately, not a lot is going on. We've got a divided Congress: The House is controlled by the Democrats, and the Senate is controlled by the Republicans. What I do hope we get in legislation—and the president, (Donald) Trump, has talked to Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and (Senate Minority Leader Chuck) Schumer over in the Senate—is maybe an infrastructure bill. We certainly need that across America. We certainly need it in Louisiana. So, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed. [Editor's note: This interview occurred before negotiations over infrastructure stalled.]
Q. What are the biggest infrastructure needs in Louisiana right now?
A. You name it, we've got it in Louisiana. We've got roads and bridges that have been deemed dangerous. We certainly have potholes bigger than my old pickup truck. I've always said that the infrastructure is the circulatory system of any state and, certainly, of any business. So, when our roads and bridges are impassable, business comes to a standstill. The other thing we've been blessed with in Louisiana: We've got so many waterways and ports. You've got the mighty Mississippi running down. So, we've got to make sure that our ports are where they need to be. We're growing in LNG (liquefied natural gas). We need to be able to export that LNG and crude (oil) that we need to get out of the country and export. But without the ports, without the roads and bridges coming to the ports, that's not going to happen.