Lois Capps can be described in many ways: caring, kind, determined, and smart as a whip. But don’t call her nice. Though deemed the “nicest woman in Washington” by the Washingtonian in 2006, she maintains that isn’t her legacy.
“I don’t hold it up on a pedestal,” she insists. “It makes me uncomfortable!”
Capps never meant to get into politics. For most of her adult life, she was a school nurse, but she took over her husband’s spot in 1998 after his untimely death. Former University of California, Santa Barbara religious studies professor Walter Capps was in the middle of his first term in the House of Representatives when he died; a special election was held and Lois Capps won it.
“I have to acknowledge that it was a little bit by accident,” she says, laughing. “I just felt that was the honest thing to do for people, and also for myself. I didn’t make any promises. I thought, I’ve had a career. I know how to be a nurse. But I also had this feeling that a nurse could bring a lot of skills to Congress. I had to test that out, but I actually found that it can have some value.”
As a nurse by profession, it’s funny to think that she may be just what the doctor ordered: a medical professional coming in to heal our government. Fittingly, she considers “Obamacare” to be a part of her rubber stamp on Congress. The Affordable Care Act has been an incredibly controversial health care reform bill, spawning many debates and inspiring many late night television sketches, but Capps is not worried about the backlash and thinks people will come around.
She understands the initial response to it, saying, “It takes a long time to pass major reform. That happened with Social Security, and in the last part of the century, it happened with Medicare, and now it is happening with the Affordable Care Act. And in each of those instances, it’s not a piece of cake. It’s a major overhaul.” But now, Social Security and Medicare are just a part of life, and she believes the ACA will soon be accepted the same way. In her eyes, it’s already begun.
“We passed the law, but it was designed to be implemented by states–in other words, not a national Affordable Care Act, but a national law that would be regulated and implemented by states,” she says. “In fact, I’m very proud of California–they really took it and made it their own, and we are one of the handful of states–maybe a dozen–that took that mandate and said it’s now called Covered California, it’s not really the Affordable Care Act. Some would say it’s too early to tell if it’s going to work. I believe it’s going to work; I just think that so many more people have access to health care now than they had before, and that speaks volumes.”
However, Capps is not just a nurse in Congress; she is a woman in Congress. To be a woman in such a male-dominated legislative body surely must be difficult, and she acknowledges the challenges of her position.
“Being a woman in Congress is really interesting,” she says. “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.” But it is not just women who are minorities in Congress.
“When you sit in the visitors’ gallery and you look down and see, I’ll stereotype now and say, a bunch of gray-haired men–there’s something wrong with that picture. The more we can change it, with so-called minorities particularly. They’re not minorities much anymore. That’s the future of Congress.” Capps is also aware of the fact that minorities in Congress are not just women and racial minorities, but that Congress needs more variety in the ages of Congressmen and women as well. “It’s really hard to get elected to Congress with a constituency as large as this one. It’s expensive, and those are barriers to young people. But we need young moms in Congress.”
Young people are a group that Capps is extremely interested in, especially considering that a good chunk of her constituency is made up of college-aged people, with UCSB, Santa Barbara City College, Antioch University, and Westmont University all in her district. There are a series of problems that arise from trying to adequately represent her whole district, especially when considering that college students tend to lean more to the liberal side while permanent residents of Santa Barbara tend to be more conservative. Adding the fact that university populations are transient, with a typical turnover rate of four years, it can be tricky to take in their interests as well as the interests of permanent residents of the Santa Barbara district. But she takes the challenge in stride, and encourages the students to continue being as politically active as they have been.
“I’m very proud of UCSB, and as you know, the active participation of students at this campus, I think is remarkable. The highest percentage of voters the last two times they measured nationally. That’s something to really take pride in, as far as the students are concerned. So we have always taken very seriously that vote. Not all my colleagues do, I know that, because they feel like most of the young people are related still to their home district. Of course, nobody is ever forced to vote here, but the chances are you’re going to be more engaged in what’s going in Isla Vista and Goleta and UCSB, and I think that’s good, because to me, if you vote when you’re 18, chances are you’re going to continue that pattern. I think one of the downsides to the United States now is our low turnout. I think that’s not a good thing, and so I fully believe in however people vote. The younger they start, the more consistent they’re likely to be, and at this campus speaks well for its activism in a whole host of areas.”
As a representative who represents college students, one subject that constantly comes up to affect students is lowering rates on student loans, as well as the constantly rising price of tuition for state schools. Capps says she voted in Congress this past year to keep student interest rates low at 3.86 percent rather than letting it go up to 6.8 percent. Yet this is still a high rate for students, so shouldn’t there be further action to continue to lower them? Is it not intuitive that student loans should be lower?
Capps acknowledges, “That’s a good point. I think it’s going to be–I think, right now, we need to be sure that we can keep it where it is. The loan companies, they have a lot of stake in keeping them as high as possible. They’re going to be fighting with big dollars on the other side, and I don’t mean for it to sound like a battle, but it is in a way. Because they don’t have the public interest in heart so much as their profit line, keeping it where it is, is a major step. Now, to explore other options is great, and let’s do that. I haven’t seen a proposal, but I can look for one, and if student government associations would like to put forward a proposal, and you know, see if there’s a vehicle for getting that to start.”
I would also like to say that it’s not simply an economic interest to what to have an educated electorate. It’s also social. Equality has been an incredibly big discussion lately. It’s not simply an economic viewpoint we can look at for reducing student fees, tuition, interest rates for loans.
“Those cases are harder to make to the general public, but I think they’re worth it,” she says.
Yes. I think they’re just what the doctor ordered.
With contributions from Katana Dumont, Features Editor