Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Report: Most Tax-Based College Aid Goes to the Least Needy Families

| Tue Dec. 10, 2013 7:00 AM EST

The federal government helps to make college affordable in a number of ways, from low-interest student loans to grants for low-income students. It also offers a host of lesser known subsidies for higher education through the tax code, by way of such things as 529 tax-free college savings plans and exemptions for loan interest and college expenses—expenditures that don't show up as a budget line item the same way Pell Grants do. A new report from the Consortium of Higher Education Tax Reform suggests these tax credits aren't doing much to increase the number of low-income families who send kids to college. Instead, they're subsidies to the 20 percent of American households making more than $100,000 a year—people who would send their kids to college even without a 529 plan.

The nation spends $34 billion annually on Pell Grants, which allow lower-income kids to go to college and leave without owing major debt. Meanwhile, the US spends $35 billion on higher education tax breaks, most of which go to people who need them the least. Tax credits in general are poorly targeted at those most in need, but some are worse than others. Take the Exemption for Dependent Students, which allows families to reduce their taxable income by up to $3,900 if they have a dependent student between the ages of 19 and 23. More than half of all these exemptions go to people making over $100,000 a year. Also regressive: the deduction for tuition and fees, half of which goes every year to families making over $100,000. The median income of a family with a 529 college savings plan is $120,000.

One reason tax credits don't benefit lower-income families as much as they should is the fact that they aren't refundable, so the money generally isn't available to families when the college bills are due, only when they file their taxes. The consortium also points out that federal tax breaks are still available to colleges and universities that are doing a poor job of enrolling and graduating low-income students, noting that more than 100 institutions getting federal tax breaks have graduation rates under 20 percent—a serious problem that can leave low-income kids both saddled with college debt and without a degree that might help them earn enough to repay it.

Research shows that financial aid can make a huge difference in whether a low-income kid decides to go to college. It has a miniscule impact on the college attendance rate of upper class kids, who are seven times more likely than low-income students to complete a bachelor's degree by the age of 24. The consortium recommends some big cuts in higher ed tax breaks for the affluent and a shift in focus to directing aid to where it can do the most good. Among its proposals: ending taxation of Pell Grants; allowing people with drug convictions to access the American Opportunity Tax Credit, one of the few refundable higher ed tax credits; and imposing income limits on college savings plans. All of these things seem reasonable and something both parties ought to be able to get behind, but it's hard to see middle-class families giving up all this aid without a huge fight.

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The Latest Legal Attack Against Obamacare

| Tue Dec. 3, 2013 7:55 AM EST

Today, the US District Court for the District of Columbia* will hear arguments in one of the last lingering legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. The suit, Halbig v. Sebelius, argues that a single phrase in the law creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through and nullify the whole thing.

The argument goes something like this: When Congress wrote the ACA, it said that premium subsidies would be available for certain qualifying citizens who were "enrolled through an Exchange established by the State." (Emphasis added.) The law doesn't say that those subsidies are available to people in the 34 states that declined to set up exchanges, where residents must utilize the now-infamously buggy Healthcare.gov, the federal exchange.

That's where Obamacare opponents see a fatal flaw in the law. The plaintiffs in Halbig claim that they won't be eligible for tax credits because their states didn't start an exchange, so they won't be able to afford insurance. As a result, they argue that they'll be subject to the fine for not buying insurance, or to avoid the fine, they'll have to pay a lot for insurance they don't want. They want the court to block the IRS from implementing the law.

The complaint is pretty convoluted, and it's clearly a political attack. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses challenging the legality of the individual mandate, an argument rejected by the Supreme Court. The other plaintiffs are also conservative operatives, including the lead plaintiff, Jacqueline Halbig, who was a senior policy adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush. (She's also been the source of a host of conservative rhetoric about "baby death panels" in the ACA.) The intellectual force behind the suit,* Michael Cannon, is a health care expert at the libertarian Cato Institute who has spent the last few years urging states to refuse to set up insurance exchanges as a means to sabotage Obamacare.

The Obama administration argues that the language Halbig's case is premised on is merely a drafting error common in legislation and routinely reconciled after passage. (Indeed, if Congress were functioning normally, such copy mistake would have been corrected by now, but given the level of polarization in that body, it's been impossible to make such fixes that were once routine.) An amicus brief in the case filed by Families USA, a nonprofit health care advocacy group helping the administration combat some of the bad PR surrounding Obamacare, argues that the plaintiffs are disregarding the vast body of evidence showing that Congress intended for all low-income Americans to be eligible for tax subsidies, regardless of which exchange they used to purchase insurance. 

Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, has said that Congress essentially fixed the drafting error in another piece of legislation requiring the federal exchange to report information to the IRS and to promulgate regulations around Obamacare. The Congressional Budget Office has also treated the law as if the subsidies are available on the federal exchange.

So far, though, the lawsuit has survived. US District Court Judge Paul Friedman, a Clinton appointee, declined to dismiss the suit, though he did refuse the plaintiffs' request for an emergency injunction to prevent the IRS from implementing the law. Friedman will hear summary judgment arguments in the case this afternoon.*

The case seems destined for the Supreme Court, where a conservative majority is already hostile to Obamacare. The Roberts court has also shown little interest in considering congressional intent when interpreting the law. (See its history on the Voting Rights Act.) John Roberts has proven to be something of a literalist when it serves his interests. That record alone ought to give the administration and health care reformers pause. If Halbig et al. prevail in the case, Mother Jones' Kevin Drum has suggested that premium subsidies could end up available only to people in the 16 mostly blue states that have chosen to run their own exchanges, while the rest of the country (all the red parts) would keep paying taxes to underwrite those subsidies. But Halbig and her backers are clearly hoping that a decision in their favor will kill Obamacare completely.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that an appeal of a trial court decision in the case is being heard in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday. It also misidentified Michael Cannon as a lawyer. He has a master's degree in law and economics but not a Juris Doctor. The story has since been fixed.

Food Stamp Costs Are Decreasing Without The GOP's Cuts

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 7:00 AM EST

As Congress debates renewing the farm bill, Republicans have been pressing for big cuts to the food stamp budget as part of the negotiations. House GOP leaders want to slash as much as $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next decade, a cut that would affect nearly four million low-income people. Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), a former funeral director and current House pointman in the negotiations, has called the "explosion of food stamps in this country" the "defining moral issue of our time," and he's set out to "reform" the program by imposing work requirements on recipients.

Southerland would specifically push states to end SNAP benefits for poor families in areas of high unemployment. The premise behind his reform proposals is that the food stamp program is "growing into oblivion." But a new study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that in fact, enrollment in the food program, which hit a record during the recession, has already started to plateau and is projected to decline about five percent next year even if Congress does absolutely nothing. 

Part of that decline is the result of a seven-percent, across-the-board cut that went into effect November 1 with the expiration of about $5 billion in funding increases from the 2009 stimulus bill. But even without that cut, caseloads have been stabilizing since 2011 and remained flat this year. Now, the Congressional Budget Office projects that, barring any major fiscal disasters, the food stamp budget is on track to return to 1995 levels in about five years, falling about two to five percent a year as the economy recovers. All this even if Congress doesn't do anything to "reform" a program that kept nearly five million people (2.2 million of them children) out of poverty last year and is responsible for broad economic and public health gains.

If Southerland gets his way, though, instead of letting a recovering economy pare down food stamp spending, Congress will throw 1.7 million of the nation's poorest people out of the program—people whose annual income is less than $2,500 a year—and incentivize the states to drop even more so they can use the savings on other things, like tax cuts for the wealthy. It's times like these when doing nothing seems like a good idea.

Florida Congressman Arrested on Cocaine Charges Has History With Sex-Themed Websites

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 7:00 PM EST
Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.)

Who could have anticipated that the former owner of sexguideonline.com might get into trouble as a congressman? On Tuesday, Politico broke the news that freshman congressman Henry "Trey" Radel (R-Fla.) was arrested on cocaine possession charges in DC last month and is scheduled for arraignment Wednesday. (DC Superior Court records on the charges can be found here.)

Radel, a tea party favorite and a Fox News radio host, came to office with an unusual background, having run a business that bought somewhat pornographic sex-themed domain names in both English and Spanish, as Mother Jones reported last year. Radel's business snagged all sorts of un-family-friendly domain names, including www.casadelasputas.com ("whorehouse") and www.mamadita.com ("little blow job").

During the campaign he brushed aside whispers of "domaingate," but eventually admitted to buying the site names after Mother Jones reported their existence. (After our story, he sent an email to supporters attacking Mother Jones as an "ultra-liberal San Francisco rag" whose "attack" on him he wore like a "badge of honor.") Tea partiers I interviewed at the time insisted that the business was no reflection on Radel's family values, and said they were behind him completely. From that story:

Radel supporter George Miller, the president of the Cape 9/12 group, a conservative tea-party-type organization inspired by Glenn Beck, says that he doesn't believe Radel would register raunchy web sites to begin with. "I stand by him 100 percent," he says. "He's an honest guy. He's a family guy. He's the kind of guy I want representing me."

Radel was hand-picked by former Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) to fill Mack's seat when Mack challenged Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) for Senate in 2012. Radel won a crowded Republican primary. Among those he defeated: establishment candidate Chauncy Goss, son of former CIA director Porter Goss. Chauncy Goss was endorsed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Tea partiers dismissed Goss as too much of an insider and threw their weight behind Radel, who had never held elected office before.

Just weeks ago, Radel won some accolades for becoming one of the few Republicans to support drug sentencing reform. He cosponsored the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would provide an exception to mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws to allow shorter sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders. Radel may get a chance to see how such a law works first hand. He was arrested in DC, which has a special drug court that is designed to funnel low-level addicts into rehab rather than long-term jail time.

Tuesday night, Radel released a statement apologizing to his family and blaming his troubles on alcoholism, a problem he said he would be able to get help with thanks to his arrest. He hasn't said whether he'll try to keep his seat.

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