Advocacy in action

Up close and personal: An interview with AASV Executive Director Tom Burkgren

Q: What percentage of your time is spent on lobbying efforts?

A: I would estimate about 15%. That includes the time I spend lobbying legislators and government officials, as well as the time for related activities, such as writing issue briefs, preparing for meetings, drafting comments to federal agencies, and so forth. That percentage, though, is an average over the course of the year. It will vary according to the issue and the amount of lobbying that's necessary.

Q: Do you believe that it is a good use of the AASV's resources?

A: Definitely. In 1994, our board chose to formalize and increase the association's representation in issues. I believe that decision has benefited AASV members. That benefit to members is the ultimate test of value.

Q: How is AASV perceived on Capitol Hill? By government agencies? By its adversaries?

A: AASV is not a large force on Capitol Hill, due to our time and budget constraints. It's hard to establish a presence on Capitol Hill when you are not based in Washington, DC. Over time, however, you begin to build relationships with certain congressional staff members. Then when you call, they know who you are.

The AASV is well recognized by the FDA and the USDA. We have spent considerable time and effort working with both of those agencies. We have utilized a number of AASV members in meetings and lobbying activities aimed at both agencies.

I'm sure that our adversaries see us as a thorn in their side. The AASV is dwarfed by the budgets of most of the activist organizations opposed to animal agriculture. Nevertheless, the AASV remains bold and persistent in our efforts to blunt the attacks by those organizations.

Q: What is AASV's greatest strength in the area of advocacy?

A: The ability to leverage the individual strengths of our members. Whether those strengths are intellectual in nature, or the ability to effectively deliver a message to a congressman, our members freely offer their time and talents to the AASV when needed. As an association, we are blessed with a lot of great thinkers and doers. As an association executive, I could not ask for more from our members.

Q: What would help AASV be even more effective in advocacy?

A: A clone. Time constraints often mean that we spend time putting out fires, rather than getting ahead of the issues. Also, more members involved in the issues would increase the association's effectiveness. That means more than just recruitment of volunteers - it means that once you have them recruited, you have to give them specific tasks to accomplish. There is no better way to discourage volunteers than to activate them, but then not give them something meaningful to do.

Q: Is there a lobbying situation that you would do differently if you could relive it?

A: Yes. I led a group of pork producers in a meeting with a US senator. I had briefed them specifically beforehand to not mention a certain subject, because I knew that it was a hot button for the senator, and once on the subject, we might never get back off it. Of course, one of the producers believed that the forbidden subject should be discussed, so he mentioned it and off we went. As expected, it took a great deal of valuable time to get back to the real reason we were there. Given those circumstances again, I would make sure that each producer specifically agreed with the strategy. Any disagreement could then have been handled before the meeting.

Q: What has been the most troublesome issue, and how?

A: It seems like the issue you are currently facing is always the most troublesome. Right now, it's animal welfare and animal rights. Proponents of animal rights are very opposed to animal agriculture. Their agenda is to destroy meat production, but they portray themselves as mainstream advocates for animal welfare, which belies their radical agenda. These groups are well funded and have become very sophisticated in their efforts.

Q: Describe the challenges involved in lobbying.

A: Effective lobbying requires time - time to study the issues, assess priorities for members, develop positions, and establish relationships. Time is also needed to monitor the ongoing and various situations as issues evolve and change. I would like more time to get things done, rather than react to situations.

Q: Is your method of lobbying different today from what it was 10 years ago?

A: I certainly know more today than I did 10 years ago. I hope that I am better at lobbying and more effective. However, the basics still apply. Understanding the issues and the impacts on your constituency are vital. Those, along with relationship building, are the cornerstones for my lobbying efforts.

Q: Do you believe that anyone would notice if AASV discontinued its advocacy efforts?

A: Maybe not on Capitol Hill, but certainly the FDA and USDA would wonder where we were if we were not badgering them. I think that our adversaries would also notice if we were not there to oppose them. Not many veterinary groups are as vocal or as active as we have been.