Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer


Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent several years 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.

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The New GOP Plan to Block Obama's Judicial Nominees

| Wed Oct. 30, 2013 6:37 AM EDT
The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit

Second only to the Supreme Court, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals is considered the most important federal court. It's the body that hears the challenges to every unpopular regulation proposed by a federal agency. For instance, the court of appeals is currently hearing a spate of lawsuits from private companies arguing that they should be exempt from providing contraception coverage to workers because of their religious views. Right now, this key appellate court has more vacancies than it's had in a decade—and congressional Republicans are hoping to keep it that way. 

Authorized for 11 judgeships, the court presently has only eight judges. Republicans claim that the court is "evenly divided" among judges appointed by Republicans and Democrats. But the court also has six semi-retired senior judges who still hear cases. When they're included, Republicans have a 9-5 majority. Many of those GOP nominees are also hardcore conservative ideologues. Among them: Janice Rogers Brown, who almost didn't get confirmed during the George W. Bush administration because of her extreme libertarian views. An Ayn Rand fan, Brown considered Supreme Court decisions upholding minimum-wage laws "the triumph of our socialist revolution."

The Republican majority on this court has been able to advance aspects of the GOP's anti-regulatory agenda that the party has failed to accomplish legislatively. Last year, for instance, the DC Circuit struck down a set of environmental rules 20 years in the making that would have held states responsible for pollution that leaked across their borders. The DC Circuit's conservative majority would shrink considerably should Obama succeed in getting all of his nominees confirmed. That's why Republicans have been blocking Obama from filling those three slots. (Overall, Obama's judicial nominees have waited an average of 277 days before getting a confirmation vote, compared with 175 during the George W. Bush administration.)

Along with trying to filibuster Obama's nominees, the GOP has come up with a clever scheme to shrink the number of judges on the appeals court to deny Obama vacancies to fill. Congressional Republicans have claimed that the DC appeals court is under-worked and thus the shrinkage is justified. And they have repeatedly accused Obama of "court packing" simply for trying to fill the existing vacancies on the DC Circuit, comparing the president unfavorably to F.D.R., who attempted to expand the number of Supreme Court seats to shift the balance of power. The talking point is a nifty dodge for Republicans who can't really come up with a good reason why they won't confirm Obama's otherwise uncontroversial and qualified nominees. It allows them to say to the nominees whose judgeships they're holding up, "Hey, we really think you're great. The court just doesn't need any more judges." 

With Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) leading the charge, the Senate took up a bill, the Court Efficiency Act, to downsize the DC Circuit earlier this year. (Kevin Drum has covered this extensively here.) That legislation has been co-sponsored by the party's newest stars, Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), along with other tea party Republicans including Utah's Mike Lee. The House held a hearing on Tuesday to consider its version of this bill, introduced by Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), which is called the Stop Court-Packing Act. The idea that nominating judges for ordinary federal vacancies is a form of court-packing is a disingenuous claim that has been dismissed even by conservatives. Fox News contributor Byron York, author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, tweeted in May, "It doesn't strike me as 'packing' to nominate candidates for available seats."

One of the co-sponsors of Grassley's bill is Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). While Hatch and his fellow Republicans are now trying to shrink the appeals court, in 2003 he gave a speech decrying the number of DC Circuit vacancies. Hatch noted then that the court was down to only eight judges (which at that time hadn't happened since 1980), and he called the judicial vacancies "a crisis situation" because of the court's workload. 

As the House and Senate versions of the appeals-court-shrinking legislation wind their way to a vote, Senate Republicans are resorting to more tried and true methods for obstructing the president's nominees. On Monday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved to bring the nomination of Patricia Millet to the DC Circuit to the floor for a vote, a move Senate Republicans are vowing to filibuster. (South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham even promised to hold up every judicial nomination until Democrats present Benghazi survivors for congressional questioning.) Millet's prospects don't look particularly good, though even Ted Cruz has acknowledged her "fine professional qualifications." The last woman Obama nominated to the DC Circuit, Caitlin Halligan, finally withdrew her name in March after waiting almost two and a half years for the Senate to confirm her. 

Mitt Romney's New Mansion Will Have a Secret Room

| Wed Oct. 23, 2013 4:31 PM EDT
The $12 million California beach house Mitt Romney plans to raze to build one four times larger.

After six years of running for president, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is back to doing the many things he did when he was just a private citizen: pumping his own gas, shopping at Costcoriding roller coasters at Disneyland, and buying mansions.

Lately, Romney has been bolstering his property holdings in Utah, where he went to college and where his family has long, Mormon roots. Last year, he bought an acre of land in Holliday, near Salt Lake City. His son Josh bought the lot next door. The land is zoned for equestrian use and comes with a barn, which will presumably accommodate Ann Romney's dressage horses. The Romneys are tearing down a rambler that's currently on the site to build a 5,900 square-foot farmhouse in its place. The Salt Lake Tribune got a peek at the architectural plans recently approved for the new house. Among the massive rooms, closets the size of a Burger King, personal spa, and other luxury features, the manse has at least one more whimsical addition. Channeling his inner Bruce Wayne, Romney has arranged for his new study to have a hidden ante room that will be accessed through a secret bookcase door.

The paper notes that Mitt isn't the only Romney to add some clever design features to his expensive property. His son Craig is famous for building a house that includes a swing in the middle of the living room, a secret passageway, and a circular staircase that converts into a slide.

It's unclear how much time Mitt will be spending in the new farmhouse. He also recently purchased a new, 8,700-square foot home in the swank Utah ski resort of Deer Valley, 28 miles from the Holliday house, that was last listed for $8.9 million. Romney owned a house in Deer Valley when he was in charge of the 2002 winter Olympics, but sold it before running for president. 

The Romneys apparently need a lot of space. Even as they are acquiring big chunks of the state of Utah, Mitt and Ann have finally received the greenlight to tear down a $12 million, 3,000-square foot beach house in La Jolla, California so they can build a 11,000-square foot mansion on the plot, replete with the car elevator that was subject of so many jokes during the presidential campaign. In addition to their Utah and California properties, the Romneys still own a condo in Belmont, Massachusetts, which allows Mitt to vote in the state he once governed without facing charges of voter fraud. And they own a 6,700-square foot lakeside vacation "cottage" and surrounding estate worth $10 million in New Hampshire. Not counting the condo or the guest quarters at the New Hampshire estate, that works out to about 32,300 square feet of living space for Mitt and Ann, or enough to provide a two-bedroom apartment for every single member of the immediate Romney clan, including each of the 23 grandchildren. Romney's real estate acquisitions seem like an attempt to compensate for his inability to buy the one house he really wanted: the White House.

CHART: Welfare Reform Is Leaving More In Deep Poverty

| Wed Oct. 23, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The economy is picking up in some parts of the country, but that hasn't translated into any new serious efforts to help those suffering the most hardship. In fact, for those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, life may be getting even harder. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) looks at cash benefits provided under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, commonly known as "welfare." It finds that the value of monthly cash benefits that make up the fragile safety net for the poorest families with children has continued to decline steadily since the program was "reformed" in 1996.

Back then, benefits weren't exactly generous, but they did manage to keep a whole lot of kids out of really deep poverty. Today, those benefits are almost nonexistent. The lucky few who are able to get cash assistance aren't getting enough to pay rent or keep the lights on in most states, and the value of the benefits has declined precipitously since 1996—even more so since the recession started. According to CBPP, there is not a state in the country whose welfare benefits are enough to lift a poor single mother with two kids above 50 percent of the poverty line, or about $9700 a year. In many southern states, TANF doesn't provide enough money to get a poor family much above 10 percent of the poverty line. What's especially troubling about these figures is that, as CBPP reports, TANF benefits are often the only form of cash assistance poor families receive. They may be getting food stamps, which definitely help their situations, but you can't buy diapers or pay the rent with food stamps.

People like President Bill Clinton and then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich claimed they'd be doing welfare recipients a favor in the 1990s when they reformed the welfare program to impose work requirements and make it more difficult for people to get benefits. The idea was that welfare recipients were just lazy and that their government checks were keeping them from working, making them dependent on the government. When the reform legislation passed, with Clinton's signature, some people in the administration quit in protest, arguing that cutting off cash assistance for poor families would push millions of children into poverty. That didn't happen, at least not right away. But funding for the TANF block grant hasn't increased since 1996, meaning that in real terms, what the country spends to help poor families in the program has fallen 30 percent overall since welfare was "reformed," and benefit levels have fallen even more in some states that cut benefits after the financial crisis started in 2007. Not surprisingly, since 1996, the number of families with children living in extreme poverty—that is, on $2 a day or less—has gone up nearly 130 percent

The US Census Bureau reports that the number of Americans suffering significant hardships, such as having utilities cut off, getting evicted, or suffering food shortages, has escalated sharply during the recession. Between 2005 and 2011, nearly 7 million additional people were unable to make a mortgage or rent payment, suggesting that as the nation's last-ditch safety net for people in really dire straits, TANF, is not working. Given that science is now showing just how damaging the stress of poverty is to children and their health and intellectual development, maybe it's finally time for welfare reform to be reformed in a way that gives poor kids a fair shot at a decent future.

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Tue Sep. 9, 2014 6:30 AM EDT | Updated Tue Dec. 16, 2014 10:10 AM EDT