Lois Capps, nicest member of Congress, unloads (in her way) about what she won’t miss


Lois Capps is coming home to the California coast.

She’s cast her last vote as a member of Congress representing San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. She’s delivered her last speech, raised her last bothersome dollar.

The 78-year-old widowed school nurse who found herself in politics and learned some lessons along the way is now ready for grandma duty. She’ll next return to Capitol Hill as a civilian, albeit one with more insight than most.

“There are a lot of myths that are broken when you’re actually here,” Capps, a Democrat, said in an interview.

The appeal of mandatory term limits, for one. She was first elected to the House in 1998, following the death of her husband, Walter Capps, who was nine months into his own congressional career. She joined many other candidates of that era in pledging to serve only three terms. She ended up serving nine.

“Little did I realize that you don’t know much at all after six years,” Capps acknowledged. “This institution is complex. It takes a lot of time to learn.”

Capps’ eventual seniority and posts on the wide-ranging House Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the House Natural Resources Committee, helped her pursue the health policy reforms and environmental protections dear to her heart.

She cites highly visible successes, including creation of the Carrizo Plain National Monument in southeastern San Luis Obispo County and work on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. More modestly, she’s helped secure and applaud her district’s share of federal funds, like a $399,815 grant to the San Luis Obispo County Food Bank Coalition earlier this year.

Day to day, Capps has reliably voted along liberal lines. She earned a 100 percent vote rating last year from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, a 0 percent rating from the conservative Americans for Prosperity and a 100 percent rating from the National Education Association.

“We have fought to protect women’s rights, strengthen families and push for equality,” Capps said in her final House speech Wednesday morning. “We have made great strides in making health care more accessible and affordable, so that no one has to go bankrupt just because they get sick.”

Several hours later, Capps was back in the cramped confines of the Departing Member Center, located in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. While her replacement, fellow Democrat Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, prepared to enter his new office, Capps’ few remaining staffers continued their last-minute work at a single desk and some shared couch space.

The next day, in the early afternoon, Capps cast her last congressional vote. It was a “no,” as Capps joined 60 other House members in opposing a big infrastructure bill that included controversial California provisions easing new dam construction and steering more water to San Joaquin Valley farms.

Capps lost that vote, a not-unaccustomed fate for a member of the minority party in the Republican-controlled House. Frustrations can mount; patience is required. Capps introduced 25 bills this Congress, two of which were health-related measures that passed the House unanimously last month.

“I’m a little hard on myself, so I wish I could have been more effective,” Capps said. “It’s a pretty good track record, (but) I wish I got more bills passed.”

Congressional staffers routinely voted Capps as the “nicest” member of Congress, and as a general rule she doesn’t like to complain. She quotes her late husband, a religion professor, as saying that “democracy is conversation.” Civility is key.

Still, she admits to disliking parts of the congressional experience. Weekly cross-country travel is physically taxing. Los Angeles International Airport is awfully bleak at midnight. Constant campaign fundraising can wear a person down, even those who prove surprisingly good at it.

For her 2000 House race, Capps raised $1.6 million. By the time of her 2014 race, in which she beat Republican Christopher Mitchum, Capps raised $2.2 million. Asked about this kind of fundraising, Capps calls it simply “the worst.”

“I guess there are people who like doing it,” Capps said. “I don’t care for it. It takes a toll.”

At the same time, even this unfailingly gracious holder of a master’s degree in religion from Yale owns up to the competitive juices required by politics.

“What’s fun about it?” Capps said, echoing a reporter’s question before answering it. “Winning. Winning a vote. Winning a victory for your district. Winning an election is fun, more fun than losing.”

Capps said she won’t become a lobbyist, although she said she “will advocate” for causes she believes in. Living back in Santa Barbara, she anticipates spending time with her young grandson, reading novels instead of briefing books and, in due course, returning as a tourist to the magnificent and misunderstood place in which she’s worked since 1998.

“I’ll have to come back,” Capps said, “with my family.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10