"Lois Capps" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.
In 1998 Lois Capps won a special election to the United States House of Representatives following the death of her husband, Walter Holden Capps, who was only 10 months into his House career. In her nearly two decades on Capitol Hill, Capps was a prominent advocate for health care and environmental protection. Recognized as one of Congress’s nicest and most collegial Members, Capps often crossed party lines to join Republicans—GOP women Members, in particular—to forward her legislative agenda. “Being a woman in Congress is really interesting,” she once observed. “We are in the minority. I’m very proud of my colleagues who are women. We do sort of have a bond and it’s across the aisle, so there is something to be said for our gender.”1
Lois Capps was born Lois Ragnhild Grimsrud in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, on January 10, 1938, to Jurgen, a minister, and Solveig Grimsrud.2 The Grimsruds later moved to Kalispell, Montana, where Lois, the only daughter, graduated from Flathead County High School in 1955. She earned a bachelor of science in nursing from Pacific Lutheran University in 1959, a master’s in religion from Yale University in 1964, and a master’s in education from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1990. She married Walter Capps, a theology professor, in 1960, and the couple raised three children: Lisa, Todd, and Laura.3
Capps had not paid much attention to politics growing up in western Montana. “We were good, moderate Republican stock, let’s put it that way,” she recalled. But when she and Walter were living in New Haven, Connecticut, for graduate school, both “were caught up in” the civil rights movement and the promise of the John F. Kennedy administration, she remembered.4 From 1960 to 1964, Lois Capps worked as a nursing instructor and head nurse at the Yale New Haven Hospital and as a staff nurse in Hamden, Connecticut. When the family moved to California, Capps worked as an elementary school nurse in Santa Barbara County, California, from 1968 to 1970 and again from 1977 to 1996. She also taught part-time at the Santa Barbara City College from 1983 to 1995.
In 1994 Walter Capps ran as a Democrat for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Lois Capps joined him on the campaign trail. The district, reliably Republican since World War II, encompassed California’s central coast—including portions of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Walter lost on Election Day but by a smaller margin than expected, taking 49 percent of the vote. He ran again two years later in 1996.5 On May 23, as they returned home from a campaign event, Lois and Walter Capps were hit head on by a drunk driver while traversing a mountainous road. While Walter was in intensive care, Lois—who escaped serious injury—stood in for him at campaign events.6 In the general election, Walter Capps prevailed with a plurality, taking 48 percent of the vote.7
On October 28, 1997, less than a year into his service, Walter Capps died suddenly of a heart attack while hailing a taxi at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The next month, Lois Capps announced her candidacy to fill the seat.8 Nebraska Senator J. Robert Kerrey, a friend of Walter’s, reached out to Capps with a piece of advice. “I support your running for Congress,” he said. “But don’t think you’re doing it for Walter. You’re going to have to do it for yourself.”9
The open primary election to fill the vacancy meant that every candidate, regardless of party, ran on the same ticket. If no one took 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers would head to a runoff. Capps was the highest vote getter with 45 percent of the vote and faced the second-place finisher, Republican state assemblyman Tom Bordonaro, two months later in the March runoff.
The special election immediately became a bellwether for the midterm elections that fall.10 National groups stepped in on behalf of both candidates, and the campaign turned contentious. At one point, Capps’ campaign learned that a group based outside the district had been calling voters and misrepresenting her positions; her campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission against the Bordonaro campaign for its involvement.11 Capps ultimately prevailed with 53 percent of the vote.12
Over the course of her nearly 20-year House career, Capps generally won re-election with comfortable margins, often with 59 percent of the vote or more. “I never could take a race for granted,” she later admitted. “I think it made me a better Member of Congress.” Capps’s final election in 2014, which she won with 52 percent of the vote, was her closest.13
On March 17, 1998, amid a standing ovation, Capps was sworn into the 105th Congress (1997–1999).14 In the House, Capps initially took her husband’s seats on the International Relations Committee and the Science Committee. But in the 106th Congress (1999–2001), she relinquished those assignments for a spot on the powerful Commerce Committee, later renamed the Energy and Commerce Committee, where she served for the rest of her career. “I came very much under the cloud, or the mantra, of my husband’s legislative career,” she said years later. “It didn’t take long before it was just what I had done, not what he did before me.”15 Additionally, after one term on the Budget Committee in the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Capps joined the Natural Resources Committee in the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011).16
Capps served as vice chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues in the 110th Congress (2007–2009). In an institution where women were the minority, Capps believed the caucus enabled women to “make our presence more keenly felt.”17 Known as one of the nicest Members of Congress, Capps did not necessarily embrace the reputation. “I don’t hold it up on a pedestal. It makes me uncomfortable,” she told a local newspaper. Underneath her polite exterior, Capps was resolute on her two primary issues—health care and the environment.18
A bridgebuilder, Capps frequently cosponsored legislation with Republicans.19 But it was a strategy she said became more difficult toward the end of her career. “I’ve noticed, during the time that I’ve been here, an increase in the partisanship,” she lamented in 2016. “I don’t think we’re any different people than we were, than I was, but there used to be a lot more cooperation on bills and working with each other.”20
Capps’s experience as a nurse “colored everything” she did in Congress. “I see the world that way,” she said. “I talked about the environment as a health issue, climate change as a health issue. I was interested in health.”21 Capps kept her nursing license current throughout her time in the House—completing examinations every two years—helping her stay up-to-date on health care issues.22 And she sought a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee because it had jurisdiction over health issues. Capps went to Representative John David Dingell Jr. of Michigan, the former chairman of Energy and Commerce who had served on the committee since 1957. “I pointed out to him that there weren’t any nurses on his Health Subcommittee,” she said. “The next opening [on the committee], I was asked to join.”23
From her seat on Energy and Commerce, Capps helped pass the Nurse Reinvestment Act of 2002 to address the national nursing shortage.24 And in her first several Congresses, Capps also introduced legislation to curb underage drinking, improve mental health services, provide emergency defibrillators to smaller towns and municipalities, bring CPR instruction to schools, and provide immediate Medicare coverage to patients suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease.25
After her daughter, Lisa, died from lung cancer in 2000, Capps developed a close bond with Republican Deborah D. Pryce of Ohio, who had lost a child to cancer in 1999.26 She also sought more legislation to improve preventative care and further medical research—especially in fields affecting women. With GOP Representative Charles W. (Chip) Pickering of Mississippi, Capps introduced the STOP Stroke bill in 2004 to educate the public about stroke symptoms and provide funding for improved treatment.27 In 2006 Capps, working with a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, introduced the HEART for Women Act. The legislation raised awareness and funded prevention and treatment programs for cardiovascular diseases in women.28
In 2012 the House cleared two bipartisan bills coauthored by Capps. The first, the National Pediatric Research Network Act, was a collaborative effort with Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and authorized the National Institutes of Health to create a consortium to study pediatric diseases in order to streamline the creation of clinical trials and share research.29 The second—the Veteran Emergency Medical Technician Support Act—Capps sponsored with Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. The legislation made it easier for veterans with health care backgrounds to become EMTs without having to go through additional coursework.30 “Our military men and women receive some of the best technical training in emergency medicine—and they prove their skills on the battlefield every day,” Capps noted. “When they return home, however, experienced military medics are often required to begin their training completely over at the most basic level to receive certification for civilian jobs. This unnecessarily keeps our veterans out of the workforce and withholds valuable medical personnel from our communities.”31
Capps was a prominent voice in the passage of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) that transformed the U.S. health care industry.32 Calling the bill a first step toward better health care coverage, she was also one of the law’s most optimistic defenders. “It takes a long time to pass major reform,” she observed. “I just think that so many more people have access to health care now than they had before, and that speaks volumes.”33
Capps’s primary contribution to the ACA defended abortion providers. “To think that we should intrude political machinations into this excruciating experience is an abomination,” she said.34 During debate on the ACA, she introduced an amendment ensuring that federal dollars would be kept in separate accounts by health care providers who performed abortions. This firewall prevented federal funds from being used for abortions, but still allowed medical professionals to provide the procedure with private funding. Though Capps’s language was eventually rejected by the House, the Senate included portions of it into the final law.35
In 2012, amid Republican attempts to block health care tax credits for organizations offering insurance plans that might cover abortions, Capps defended the credits and criticized the GOP for what she called its “war on women.”36 “American women … want to make their own personal health care decisions in consultation with their doctors and their spiritual advisors,” she said in 2014, “not with their Congressmen.”37
Beyond the ACA, Capps sought to use new technology to help eliminate health care disparities between rural and urban, and rich and poor Americans.38 She also tackled domestic violence as a public health menace. Capps’s legislation—the Domestic Violence Screening, Treatment and Prevention Act—focused on the health care needs that resulted from domestic violence; it became law in 2006 as part of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.39 She also introduced the Domestic Violence Survivors Protection Act in 2013, which sought to prevent romantic partners with a domestic violence restraining order from purchasing a weapon.40
Capps’s seat on Energy and Commerce also put her front and center on environmental policy. She led efforts to combat global warming, enact environmental protections, and bolster clean energy initiatives—including more protection for water resources in her partly agricultural, partly coastal district. For Capps, the rapidly warming world was a public health concern, and she sponsored legislation to help the government combat the fallout. She cosponsored the Oceans and Human Health Reauthorization Act of 2011, funding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s program to better understand U.S. coastlines and their effect on the well-being of the American people.41 As part of the Energy Act of 2005, she led efforts to prevent consumers from paying to clean up harmful MTBE (a gasoline additive) contamination in regional water supplies. During debate, Capps argued that the cleanup would fall on local governments, making it an illegal unfunded mandate. Her measure narrowly lost in the House, 219 to 213, but it called national attention to the issue and the Senate later took it up.42
In 2009 Capps’s coastal California district had 23 active oil and gas platforms just offshore. From the Energy and Commerce Committee she pushed for more regulation and opposed resource development on public lands. That year, she called on Democrats and President Barack Obama to reject what she called the “drill only” approach to energy independence. “This is a unique moment for our country and we must seize it,” she said. “We can lead the world in the development of clean, renewable energy technologies.”43
Capps supported ending oil industry subsidies and wanted to direct federal resources to “energy of the 21st century—solar, wave, and wind energy.” She also called on the Obama administration to appoint a senior level public health official to coordinate clean-up efforts during oil spills rather than rely on oil company officials.44 On May 19, 2015, the issue hit close to home: the Plains All American pipeline off the coast of Santa Barbara dumped 100,000 gallons of oil into the ocean after a pipe burst. Capps sought legislation to prevent future spills.45 “Sadly, even in a community so determined to prevent them, May 19th reminded us that spills are inevitable as long as we continue to depend on oil for our energy needs,” she said a month later.46
Capps announced that she would not seek re-election on April 8, 2015. She wanted to return to California to be with her family and her community.47 Reflecting on her political career, she said, “I believe we still have so much of human potential that’s untapped, harnessing energy from people working together. That’s the genius, to me, of democracy and of our particular government with all its flaws. Where we can continue, hopefully, to inspire another generation coming behind us.”48
1Anjali Shastry, “Meet Lois Capps,” 15 January 2014, The Bottom Line (Santa Barbara, CA) https://thebottomline.as.ucsb.edu/2014/01/meet-lois-capps.
2“The Honorable Lois Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (16 July 2019): 2. The interview transcript is available online.
3Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 110.
4“Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 3.
5“Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 6; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present;” Eric Pianin, “Gephardt Stumps for Californians,” 31 October 1996, Washington Post: A14.
6Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 116; John E. Yang, “Car Accident Sidelines Democratic House Hopeful,” 10 June 1996, Washington Post: A10; “Collision Injures Congressional Candidate,” 25 May 1996, Los Angeles Times: 22.
7“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
8George Skelton, “Lois Capps Shows a Winning Style on Campaign Trail,” 15 January 1998, Los Angeles Times: A3; Fay Fiore and Jodi Wilgoren, “Dellums, Fazio to Retire From Congress,” 18 November 1997, Los Angeles Times: A3.
9“Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 10.
10Amanda Covarrubias, “Capps Headed for Congress,” 11 March 1998, Los Angeles Times: N5; Lou Cannon, “Democrats Boosted by Capps’s Win in California,” 12 March 1998, Washington Post: A4.
11Federal Elections Commission, “MUR #4375: Bordonaro for Congress,” accessed 13 August 2019, https://www.fec.gov/data/legal/matter-under-review/4735/.
12Covarrubias, “Capps Headed for Congress.”
13“Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 9; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
14“Capps Sworn in as House Member, Taking her Late Husband’s Place,” 18 March 1998, Associated Press.
15“Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 29.
16Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Members’Committee Assignments (Standing, Joint, Select) in the U.S. House, 1917–Present.”
17Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 116.
18“The Best & Worst of Congress 2014,” 5 October 2014, Washingtonian Magazine, https://www.washingtonian.com/2014/10/05/the-best-worst-of-congress-2014/; Shastry, “Meet Lois Capps.”
19Michael Doyle, “Lois Capps, Nicest Member of Congress, Unloads (in Her Way) About What She Won’t Miss,” 9 December 2016, McClatchy News Service, https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/congress/article119986983.html.
20Alex Gangitano, “Exit Interview: Rep. Lois Capps,” 25 August 2016, Roll Call: n.p.
21“Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 25.
22Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 108.
23“Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 19.
24Nurse Reinvestment Act of 2002, PL 107-205, 116 Stat. 811 (2002); Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (19 December 2001): H10489; Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (22 July 2002): H5056.
25Youth Drinking Elimination Act, H.R. 3430, 106th Cong. (1999); Youth Drug and Mental Health Services Act, H.R. 4867, 106th Cong. (2000); Community Access to Emergency Defibrillator Act, H.R. 3462, 107th Cong. (2001); Teaching Children to Save Lives Act, H.R. 4506, 106th Cong. (2000); Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Treatment and Assistance Act, H.R. 353, 106th Cong. (1999).
26Politics in America, 2004: 110; Stacy Zolt, “Rep. Capps’ Daughter Dies of Cancer at 35,” 10 February 2000, Roll Call: 1.
27Politics in America, 2006 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2005): 115; Katherine R. Dougan, “Lawmaker Wants to STOP Strokes,” 14 January 2002, Clarion Ledger (Jackson, MS): B1; Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 June 2004): H3895.
28Pat Wiley, “Heart Disease a Serious Problem for Women,” 9 August 2006, Michigan Chronicle (Detroit): A6; Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 2nd sess. (23 September 2008): H8690.
29“McMorris Rodgers, Capps Introduce National Pediatric Research Network Act,” official website of Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, press release, 15 January 2013, https://mcmorris.house.gov/mcmorris_rodgers_capps_introduce_national_pediatric_research_network_act__/.
30Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2013): 114.
31“Bipartisan Capps Bills Approved by House of Representatives,” official website of Representative Lois Capps, press release, 20 September 2012, https://web.archive.org/web/20120927230615/http://capps.house.gov/press-release/bipartisan-capps-bills-approved-house-representatives.
32Politics in America, 2012: 108.
33Gangitano, “Exit Interview: Rep. Lois Capps”; Shastry, “Meet Lois Capps”; Bartholomew D. Sullivan, “Lois Capps Proved You Can be Nice and Effective in Congress,” 25 December 2016, Ventura County Star (CA), http://www. vcstar.com/story/news/politics/2016/12/25/lois-capps-proved-you-can-nice-and-effective-congress/93929352/.
34Skelton, “Lois Capps Shows a Winning Style on Campaign Trail.”
35Jan Austin, ed., “Landmark Health Care Overhaul: A Long, Acrimonious Journey,” CQ Almanac 2009, 65th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2010): ch. 13, 3–14, https://library.cqpress.com; Politics in America, 2012: 108; Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (9 December 2009): H14376.
36Politics in America, 2014: 114; Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 February 2012): H1030.
37Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 2nd sess. (28 January 2014): H1461.
38“Capps, Takano, 22 House Colleagues Urge Obama Administration to Leverage Meaningful Use Program to Reduce Health Disparities,” official website of Representative Lois Capps, press release, 6 March 2014, https://web.archive.org/web/20140314032535/http://capps.house.gov/press-release/capps-takano-22-house-colleagues-urge-obama-administration-leverage-meaningful-use.
39Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 1st sess. (4 March 2003): H1478.
40“Capps Introduces Domestic Violence Survivors Protection Act,” official website of Representative Lois Capps, press release, 18 March 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20130403110223/http://capps.house.gov/press-release/capps-introduces-domestic-violence-survivors-protection-act.
41“Capps Introduces Bill to Research Links Between Ocean Resources and Human Health,” official website of Representative Lois Capps, 7 December 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20120916024518/http://capps.house.gov/press-release/capps-introduces-bill-research-links-between-ocean-resources-and-human-health.
42Politics in America, 2008: 115; Congressional Record, House, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (29 June 2005): H5369.
43“Capps Calls For New Path To Energy Independence,” press release, 4 February 2009, Targeted News Service.
44Quotation from “Capps Joins Her Colleagues to Unveil $40 Billion in Cuts to Wasteful Big Oil Subsidies,” official website of Representative Lois Capps, press release, 10 February 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20110303112220/http://capps.house.gov/2011/02/capps-joins-her-colleagues-to-unveil-40-billion-in-cuts-to-wasteful-big-oil-subsidies.shtml; “Capps Urges Administration to Take Oil Spill Public Health Response Away from BP,” official website of Representative Lois Capps, 9 June 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20100707032728/http://capps.house.gov/2010/06/capps-urges-administration-to-take-oil-spill-public-health-response-away-from-bp.shtml; Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 May 2010): H3516; “Capps Offers Amendment to Keystone Bill to Protect Environment,” official website of Representative Lois Capps, press release, 11 February 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150512082854/http://capps.house.gov/press-release/capps-offers-amendment-keystone-bill-protect-environment; Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 2nd sess. (13 November 2014): H7971.
45“Santa Barbara Oil Spill Sends California a Wakeup Call,” 9 June 2015, Daily News (Los Angeles, CA): n.p.
46“Capps Questions Federal Regulator on Plains Oil Spill and Pipeline Safety Failures,” official website of Representative Lois Capps, press release, 14 July 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150731063944/http://capps.house.gov/press-release/capps-questions-federal-regulator-plains-oil-spill-and-pipeline-safety-failures.
47Emily Cahn, “Lois Capps to Retire,” 8 April 2015, Roll Call: n.p.
48“Capps Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 38.
"Lois Capps" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.