Lois Capps Tells Humanist Society of Life in Congress
By Robert Bernstein
Former Congress Member Lois Capps was the most recent speaker at the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara (HSSB), speaking just before the recent election.
Here are all of my photos.
HSSB President Roger Schlueter introduced former Congressional Representative Lois Capps with a background story.
He had seen her taking questions from constituents at Albertson's as people stood in line to talk to her.
One man had a thick binder on alien spacecraft and space aliens. Roger realized how hard her job must be, dealing with such weird people. He made a note to bring her to speak when she was retired and had time.
Representative Capps said we could address her simply as "Lois" which worked well for those of us who have known her for many years.
She said that she had been to Valle Verde for candidate debates. But she had been unaware of HSSB until Marian Shapiro approached her to tell her about us. She was glad to see some familiar faces in our crowd.
Lois said that she held regular sidewalk office hours to stay in touch with constituents. She preferred not to use the word "weird" to describe constituents. "But it was not boring!"
She said a surprising number of constituents are interested in space and related phenomena such as "contrails" in the sky. She said it was important to learn what people are concerned about.
At these outreach sessions people could sign up for email and/or newsletter mail lists.
She showed us her memoir "Keeping Faith in Congress: Why Persistence, Compassion, and Teamwork Will Save Our Democracy".
Fortress Press had asked her to write about being a person of faith in Congress. Some think it is such an evil place you would lose faith. That did not happen to her.
In fact, working in Congress can strengthen your faith. "Democracy is compatible with all faiths or none at all."
She served nine terms, for a total of 18 years. Her husband Walter Capps was elected in 1996, but he died less than a year into his first term. Due to the unfortunate timing, Lois Capps had to run for that seat twice to win and then maintain that seat.
Each week she would head to work with a binder full of background information for the work ahead. She held up a binder of press clippings related to her service.
The UCSB Library asked her to donate her papers and those of Walter Capps. They are there for public perusal.
"This is a public job. You do it in public. If you are a private person this is not the job for you. It seems fair for the public to know how you conduct business."
A lot of time is spent campaigning to stay in office. The Founders wanted the Senate to be a deliberative body. But the House was to be closer to the people. The US was much smaller when the Constitution was framed. It takes a long time to get home now, even by air. For members in competitive districts they have a long commute home each weekend.
She said it is nice to be in your own house. But constituents want to see you. There are many different constituencies.
The local district office had her time scheduled when she was home. She spent little time at the district offices to maximize her time out in public and accessible.
Salud Carbajal is her successor. He is home now and campaigning. He makes sure people fill in their absentee ballots and send them in. He wants to keep his job. It takes time to learn the job.
The Supreme Court decisions that equate money with free speech have made the situation much more challenging. It is a constant job to raise money. In California some seats can be won by either party just based on who raises the most money.
She would support a Constitutional amendment to set campaign times and spending limits. And to change the Supreme Court interpretation that money equals speech. It is labor intensive to change the Constitution. We are way past due for campaign finance reform, Lois said.
She signed on to the House version of McCain-Feingold bill (Shays-Meehan) that was supposed to help. It did help and it was bipartisan. But the Supreme Court overturned key parts, notably in the Citizens United case. As a result, you spend way too much time "dialing for dollars".
She was a team player. One person can't do such a big job. She had legislative assistants and other staff.
When she was first elected she walked onto the House floor and sat down. Next to Representative Diana DeGette. DeGette was speaking about a Patients Bill of Rights. That was the language Lois knew and cared about. She wanted to be a part of that issue.
DeGette told her to get onto the prestigious Energy and Commerce Committee. It is the oldest Congressional committee. How? By campaigning for it!
She went to Rep John Dingle who was the longest serving member of Congress. He loved nurses. Lois was one of only three nurses in Congress at the time. He made her the first nurse on that committee.
Health is important to most people. She had been a school nurse. Energy is a hot topic here as in most places. In particular: Oil vs renewable energy.
Who runs the House is a vital issue. As in this election. It is a one-party town now. That could change. Even if Congress is divided it can be healthy and things can get done.
Of her 18 years of service, only four were in the majority. Those four years were productive. They passed the Affordable Care Act. Energy reform. A student loan package. It was the most productive session ever, she said.
But some believe the less Congress functions, the better. Her brother-in-law is such a person.
"Democracy is messy." In the words of Winston Churchill, "…democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried…" Sometimes it seems that nothing is getting done in this oldest democracy in the world. But she thinks it will survive.
The biggest deterrent is apathy. Getting people to vote is a top priority. That means walking precincts. Calling. Turning in ballots. People say, "Stop pestering me." She tells them to vote and she will stop!
Getting young people to vote is especially important. Walter Capps barely lost in 1994. In 1996 he campaigned hard at UCSB and barely won. In a national competition, UCSB had the highest campus voting percentage in the US.
At this point Lois wanted to open up for questions.
Roger raised a most important question: How did she process constituent views and come to a decision?
Her staff gave a daily summary of views on a range of issues. Based on emails, letters and calls. Most votes are not black and white but involve shades of gray. She very much considered constituent views. But on some matters of ethics, her conscience was paramount.
Two examples: The vote to impeach President Clinton. And the vote to wage war in Iraq. She voted no on both.
Wayne wanted to know about staff. Her budget was $2 million for two years for all purposes. She prioritized the money for staff. "They were my hands, eyes and ears."
She had three district offices, plus the DC office. "DC runs on the energy and brains of 25 year olds!" They are idealistic and hard working. They did not get much pay and some move on.
Marian asked about compromise. Lois said the Tea Party did great damage to the possibility of compromise. She wanted a bill to increase women as subjects in health studies, especially for heart disease. In the past that would have been an easy bipartisan issue. As it was, she had to wait for the Affordable Care Act to get it passed.
She is a fan of non-partisan drawing of districts to reduce partisan divides.
I raised this point: Bernie Sanders ran on a twelve point agenda that some have called "far left". Issues like true universal health care. Reversing climate change. Affordable college for all. Yet Bernie claimed these polled at 65% or higher even among Republicans.
Which suggested that on issues that really matter we really are not so divided. And also suggesting that the Democratic Party would do better to take a stronger stand and not try to appear so "centrist".
Lois questioned the accuracy of such polls which surprised me.
I also asked if big money donors have too much influence on such matters. She did agree that this is a real problem.
She said in her case the gun and tobacco lobbies didn't even try to sway her with money. But Big Pharma "was a tough one". And she said money is a big factor in environmental issues, too.
The Democratic Party helped get her elected. As a result, she felt a responsibility to raise money for them to help other candidates who share her values.
The biggest surprise coming to Congress? The personal support of her colleagues. On both sides of the aisle. She really felt this when she lost her husband and then her daughter two years later.
But she said it is important to have a strong core of principles when you come to Washington and hold on to them.
Regarding personal security, local law enforcement takes care of that. Her greatest concern was for the interns who are out in front.
Asked about immigration, she said that she worked on comprehensive immigration reform. It used to be a bipartisan issue. As for the stream of refugees from Central America, Lois favors true development and humanitarian aid for Central America. Most people would prefer to stay in their home country if they had work and were not being threatened with torture, rape or death.
I will note that the violence in Central America is largely a legacy of Reagan's wars in the 1980s. I spent many years of my life dealing with the horrors that Reagan inflicted on the people of Central America. Including doing a volunteer engineering project in Nicaragua in 1986. It is a matter of great knowledge and passion for me.
One of my friends from that era is still working in Honduras which may be more dangerous now than the war zones in the 1980s. Another "gift" from Reagan that keeps on giving, generating many of the refugees.
Lois Capps is officially retired. But she clearly is very much still engaged in working for a better world and for a better community. And she still loves getting out and being with everyone in the community.
We are grateful that she is willing to give talks like this one in our community at no charge
After this event we went to a Community Arts Workshop project called Creative Democracy. The idea? To bring people together around the arts and music across the political spectrum. Guess who sponsored it? The Capps Center. And Lois Capps was there mingling and talking to everyone!