Inside politics: An interview with U.S. Congressman and veterinarian Kurt Schrader
In an exclusive interview with DVM Newsmagazine prior to his commencement address at Ross University’s veterinary school, Schrader sat down to talk politics, public health, veterinary business and other issues.
Veterinary medicine, Schrader says, is in a unique position to actively engage in policy decisions in this country especially as it relates to zoonotic diseases, food safety, parasitology and even bioterrorism.
He should know. In his first term in the U.S. Congress, Schrader entered the political fray supporting healthcare reform. He voted against offshore oil drilling on the coast of Oregon, and he serves on the Small Business, Agriculture and Budget committees of the U.S. House. He’s a democrat from Canby, Ore., and he serves Oregon’s 5th District. According to the Washington Post, he’s voted 97.1 percent along party lines. His first term is up on Jan. 3, 2011.
DVM: Can you talk a little bit about your training as a veterinarian and how it influenced policy on Capitol Hill?
Schrader: Well, I’m new to the hill, but I can tell you about my stint in state legislature for 12 years. Being a veterinarian gives you almost an immediate cache with both the animal welfare folks and the livestock folks. Oftentimes there is some dynamic tension going on there. So you are able to oftentimes intercede and broker solutions to problems that ordinarily would be very difficult for people to handle. I think veterinarians by their nature are problem solvers. We are not usually ideologically driven... That breaches a lot of chasms out there between different groups and can make a huge, huge contribution to animal health and animal welfare and frankly, the economic viability of this country by getting engaged.
Methamphetamine is a big issue in this country and a huge issue out west where I live in Oregon. There was a movement to ban certain ingredients, which is appropriate. Some of the levels of which would have affected routine veterinary (care). I was able to talk to some of the law enforcement folks and some of my colleagues to find ways to broker thoughtful solutions that did not impact private practices so we could get quality medications to our patients. So the background you have as a veterinarian ... you get pretty good at learning how to work with people and become very versed in the issues.
DVM: What have been some of the most interesting issues so far on Capitol Hill?
Schrader: Obviously the healthcare debate is a big one. I view it from two different prisms, one as a health professional. Part of the concern I have was to make sure that in the public health arena the veterinary medical community was a big player. As you know, veterinarians play heavily, I think more authoritatively than even our medical colleagues, in the zoonotic disease area, food-safety area, bioterrorism and parasitology. We are uniquely situated compared to many of the medical doctors coming out of school. The other is in small business. Most veterinarians operate fairly small businesses with a few employees. They struggle to meet payroll, much less healthcare costs. So any healthcare (reform) was supposed to make sure that (small business owners weren’t negatively impacted) and to encourage them to do the right thing. At the end of the day, we were able to accomplish that. There is controversy out there about (healthcare reform), but I think it’s much more business-friendly then a lot of people understand. So, it was an important piece of legislation.
Quite frankly, this session has been almost overwhelming. It’s a good thing I went to veterinary college and I learned how to study 24/7, because that’s what I have been doing in Congress since I got here. There’s been one major bill after another.
DVM: All eyes have been on the Gulf of Mexico. And veterinarians have been involved in the clean-up of this oil spill. I want to ask you about your thoughts about a veterinarian’s role in responding to disasters?
Schrader: Obviously it has become a big issue, the hurricanes in the South too. We actually had some extensive flooding in the Pacific Northwest a few years ago that brought to light the inadequacy of the disaster plans when it came to animal welfare.
I remember personally swimming horses out of one of my friend’s barns across an area that was becoming inundated to prevent them from drowning. I think a lot of states at this point, through some work with the veterinary medical community as a whole, now have veterinarians on staff in the disaster preparedness area. I have a veterinary office in Oregon City that participates in that. If there is a disaster, some of my team are able to go out and help.
Frankly, again we are in a very good spot. The veterinary community is absolutely needed as an arbitrator of sorts when it comes to emergencies. I would argue, and we are trying to do this right now in the Department of Homeland Security, that we need to make sure there is a chief veterinary officer there too. Again, for the scope of problems and breadth of problems and depth of problems we need that sort of expertise to make sure, frankly, our citizens as well as our animal friends are protected.
DVM: That is probably a segue into a topic that I think is very important. I want to hear about your opinions on animal welfare. There have been some egregious, very high profile cases that have hit the media. Can you talk about veterinary medicine’s role in dealing with animal-welfare issues?
Schrader: I’ll give you my opinion anyway. There is a wide philosophical range of opinions. When I was president of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association I came home to meet with some people where animal welfare is the top issue. Their idea of abuse is very different than others.
In my home state of Oregon, for instance, one-third of the state is in the Willamette Valley where most of the population is. The winters are wet but milder. You go up to the mountains of Eastern Oregon, it is high desert where it is cold in the winter but generally sunny but more wide open. The idea of turning your horses or your cattle loose for the winter and then seeing who comes back in the summer is normal in Eastern Oregon. That’s just the way it is. If you were to do that in Willamette Valley, it would be called animal abuse. So we have to be mindful that there are different cultures, and there are degrees to which you need to deal with a problem.
Again I think that’s where the veterinarian, generally speaking, is able to deal with that. The livestock people generally have one view of the world, and some of our urban counterparts that go to great lengths for their loved ones, their animals, have a whole different view of the world.
In my opinion, it is up to the veterinary community to engage in public service whether it is at the local level, the state level or in Congress and help broker a thoughtful discussion. What is animal welfare? What is aggravated abuse? What is abuse in general? Frankly, as you all know (the definitions) change over time. Our social moors change over time. Again I think of veterinarians as being intelligent folks who have gone through a lot of education and are very empathetic and understanding of the people who they help. I hope (they are included and engaged) in some of these discussions.