Politics & Government

Lois Capps shares goals for her remaining time in Congress

Lois Capps in her office in Washington, D.C.
Lois Capps in her office in Washington, D.C. Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON — Fewer than 600 days: That’s how much time California Rep. Lois Capps has left in her nearly two-decades-long congressional career.

Take away the months of “district work periods,” travel days and weeks of lame-duck status, and her chances to do substantive work in Washington are disappearing even more quickly.

And though there’s an end in sight, the Central Coast Democrat isn’t feeling the pressure to tack her name onto one last monumental achievement. She has a long list of areas she’s active in — oil drilling and infrastructure, health care and domestic violence among them — and she’s happy just moving Congress in what she thinks is the right direction.

“I can live with the fact that it’s not going to be all neatly wrapped and finished. There are very few things that are,” Capps said during an interview in her Capitol Hill office. “It’s an ongoing process, isn’t it? To me, that’s sort of what democracy is — it’s always in the process of making progress, rather than a finished product.”

Capps, 77, announced in April that she would retire from Congress at the end of this term. She has served in the House since 1998, when she won a special election to replace her husband Walter Capps, who died of a heart attack in office.

Her most recent attempt to make progress in Washington has been focused on energy and the environment, following the Plains All American Pipeline oil spill in Santa Barbara last month. So far, company officials have reported up to 101,000 gallons leaked and $62 million in cleanup costs, according to The Associated Press.

Capps said the spill demanded a “heightened response” to oil and drilling regulations, which she’s met with a series of proposed regulations, as well as letters to federal and corporate officials throwing around her full weight as a member of Congress.

Her first proposed regulation since the spill came last week as the House considered a spending bill for transportation, housing and urban development. Capps was able to slide in an amendment that would allocate $1 million of federal spending to create a rule requiring automatic shut-off valves on all new oil pipelines. Though the congresswoman has conceded publicly that such a valve on the Plains pipeline would not have prevented a spill, it likely would have reduced its effects.

The Republican spending bill narrowly passed the House on Tuesday with Capps’ amendment and is waiting for action in the Senate.

A second amendment Capps introduced would have raised fees on oil companies to increase funding for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates oil pipelines like the one in Santa Barbara. The House voted that amendment down 222-202. Capps may reintroduce it when the House Committee on Energy and Commerce takes up a new pipeline safety act in the fall.

“It may be that we can repackage that, if you will,” she said. “I have no shame when it comes to that, if we can make some progress on it.”

In addition to the legislation, Capps formally requested a House committee hearing at the site of the oil spill. That doesn’t appear likely, as a committee spokesman said it would be difficult to arrange a hearing outside Washington, but a smaller panel could still meet on Capitol Hill to discuss the spill.

The spill, she said, “provides an example nationally of the importance of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It’s a big deal.”

Moving from oil to renewable energy, however, is a long-term goal that Congress will likely continue wrestling with long after Capps leaves.

In the meantime, she points to gun violence, domestic violence and oceanic acidification as other areas she wants to make progress on.

But progress isn’t something Congress has been known for in recent years. The past two sessions of Congress, from 2011 to 2014, have been the least productive in modern history. Combined, the two Congresses passed just 648 laws — and 159 of those were ceremonial, according to Pew Research Center.

Capps said she’s tried to overcome partisanship by ensuring her bills have at least one Republican on board when she introduces them. But that’s not always possible.

Take, for example, the Pause for Safety Act — a bill she’s introduced twice now — that came out of the Isla Vista massacre in 2014, when a student with previous psychological problems killed six people. The bill would encourage states to adopt policies that allow family members to get court orders against someone owning or buying guns if they pose a threat to themselves or others.

That bill has failed twice now to attract a Republican co-sponsor.

“When I introduce legislation, I want to have a Republican co-author so that it will truly be a bipartisan bill,” she said. “And I have to admit that with each succeeding Congress, it’s been more challenging.”

Capps noted that the 2009-2010 session of Congress was far more productive than the ones that have come since. But that’s hardly surprising, as Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House for those two years.

Looking ahead

There are extremely low expectations in Washington that Democrats will take the House, Senate and White House again in 2016, but Capps has already joined the effort to ensure her party holds on to what power it does have. She endorsed Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, a Democrat, to represent her district.

“I’m very concerned and want very much,” she said, “that we make sure that it stays, let’s say, ‘positive and progressive.’”

Capps’ seat has been a tough one to hold in recent years, with her incumbent status earning her just 52 percent of the vote in 2014 and 55 percent in 2012.

Already a number of hopefuls have come forward to try to take the open seat.

Before Capps announced her retirement, San Luis Obispo farmer Bill Ostrander, a Democrat, had declared he would run. Then, on the day Capps made her announcement, Republican Justin Fareed and Democrat Helene Schneider both announced they would run. Republican State Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and Carbajal have also said they will run.

In addition to endorsing Carbajal, Capps said that as she leaves Washington in 2017, she hopes former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton will be moving back into the White House.

“I’ve met them both and have a lot of respect for Hillary Clinton,” Capps said. “And I hope she does win.”

Capps said she doesn’t know the Clintons well, but she does have ties to them through her daughter. Laura Capps worked in Bill Clinton’s White House as an assistant to George Stephanopoulos and as a speechwriter.

Laura Capps could have made her own play for her mother’s seat but said in a statement she decided to sit out the 2016 election after giving it “serious consideration.” Her son, Oscar, she said, was a major factor in the decision.

“It would be the ultimate honor for me to represent this incredible district in Congress. After giving a campaign serious consideration, however, I’ve decided that now is not the right time for me, Bill and our 4-year-old son,” she said. “I have great respect for members of Congress who have young families, and hope there will be more of them, but a cross-country commute would make it hard for me to be the mom I try to be every day.”

With Laura Capps staying in California and Lois Capps planning to retire to Santa Barbara, Oscar can plan on seeing more of both Mom and Grandma in 2017.