Profiles In Nursing

Rep. Lois Capps, RN, BSN, M.A.

From bedside to divinity school to the House of Representatives

Lois Capps as a House Representative on the left, in front of an American flag. On the right, with a nursing cap on, she is smiling away from the camera

Many nurses take an interest in public policy, but only a handful have actually run for office. One of those illustrious few is Lois Capps, RN, BSN, M.A., who recently retired after 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mrs. Capps Goes to Washington

The daughter of a Lutheran minister from rural Wisconsin, Lois Grimsrud completed her BSN at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., graduating in 1959. She then went on to divinity school, earning her M.A. in religion from Yale University, where she also met and married fellow grad student Walter Capps.

In 1964, the Capps moved to Santa Barbara, where Walter became a professor of religious studies at UCSB. Lois resumed her nursing career as a nurse and public health advocate for the Santa Barbara Unified School District and the director of the county’s Teenage Pregnancy and Parenting Project. She later earned a second master’s degree, in education, from UCSB and taught early childhood education at Santa Barbara City College.

In 1996, Walter Capps successfully ran for Congress, becoming the Democratic representative for what was then California’s 22nd Congressional District, encompassing Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and parts of Ventura County. (It’s now the 24th District.) When Walter died of a sudden heart attack less than a year later, Lois decided to run for his now-vacant seat.

Although she had no legislative experience, Capps had been what the Santa Barbara Independent later called “the emotional center and logistical core” of her husband’s campaign. That same combination of pragmatism, integrity and near-legendary niceness carried her to victory in the 1997 special election that followed her husband’s death.

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“I knew my experience as a nurse would make me a great advocate for the health community in Congress,” Capps later told the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Human Capital Blog. “Just as nurses are the best advocates on behalf of our patients, we are naturally inclined to be the best advocates on behalf of our patients in the Capitol.”

Her constituents agreed. Despite running as a liberal Democrat in a conservative, historically Republican district, Capps was reelected each time she ran.

Congressional Career

In Washington, Capps founded the Congressional Nursing Caucus and served as co-chair of the House Cancer Caucus; the Congressional School Health and Safety Caucus; the Health Task Force of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues; and several others. She was also a member of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, which played a key role in drafting the Affordable Care Act.

Always a strong advocate for nurses and nursing education, Capps was one of the authors of the Nurse Reinvestment Act, a 2002 law that created many new nursing education, practice and retention programs under Title VIII of the Public Health Service Act.

She also worked to combat nursing shortages, expand the role of nurse practitioners in new healthcare models and support nursing faculty. During her final term in Congress, she introduced the Registered Nurse Safe Staffing Act of 2015, which would have mandated minimum nurse staffing levels nationwide.

Nursing Education

Capps also spearheaded many environmental and educational causes, worked to combat violence against women and cosponsored a bill introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.-14) to end the “pink tax” on products marketed for women. In the summer of 2016 you may have seen photos of Capps sitting next to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.-6) during the raucous sit-in House Democrats held to demand a vote on gun control legislation.

“The Nicest Member of Congress”

Whether they agreed with her politics or not, Capps’ colleagues found her a hard woman to dislike. She was a regular winner of Washingtonian magazine’s Nicest Member of Congress award. Even Republican challengers who opposed her for reelection were won over by her soft-spoken graciousness. Santa Barbara Independent correspondent Nick Welsh dubbed her “The Pleasant Powerhouse.”

In 2013, the ANA honored Capps with the association’s first-ever Congressional Nurse Advocate Award.

In 2015, Capps announced that she would retire after her current term, which ended in January 2017, shortly before her 79th birthday. “She will be sorely missed,” declared ANA President Pamela F. Cipriano, RN, Ph.D., NEA-BC, FAAN. “She brought the voice of nursing to Capitol Hill and consistently pushed all nurses to make their voices heard.”

Of course, not all nurses share Capps’ winning temperament and political moxie, but as Capps herself told the RWJF Human Capital Blog back in 2014, “You do not need to run for Congress to have an impact on policy — there are many ways to be involved in advocacy with local and national organizations. But no matter how you get involved, nurses are the backbone of our healthcare system and your input is essential.”

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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