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.

Health Care Reform: The Calm Before the Storm

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 3:36 PM EST

As Congress fights over how best to shrink the federal budget deficit, and GOP presidential candidates dominate the headlines, President Obama's health care reform law, and the opposition to it, has dropped out of sight for a while. But that lull in the health care battle could end soon. That's because, as soon as Thursday, the Supreme Court could consider whether it will take up cases challenging the constitutionality of the health care bill this term. If five justices vote yes, the full court could hand down a decision by June 2012, in the heat of the presidential election.

Whether a decision could bring the health care fight roaring back again is an open question. Four appellate courts, including the the DC Circuit, which ruled on Tuesday, have upheld the law; only one has found it unconstitutional, a trend that doesn't bode well for opponents hoping the Supreme Court will overturn it. But there's no doubt that "Obamacare" was a motivating force behind the rise of the tea party movement and the conservative takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010. And if the activists who assembled last week in DC for a conference sponsored by Americans for Prosperity are any indication, the issue still holds tremendous resonance with members of the GOP's conservative wing.

"This is the fight of our lifetime," Betsy McCaughey, former New York lieutenant governor, declared during a health care panel at the conference. McCaughey is most famous for having helped torpedo the Clinton health care plan in the mid-'90s, and she was on hand in DC to talk about Obama's health care reform law, along with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. The panel discussion was part of a summit sponsored by the Koch brothers-funded conservative organization that played a huge role last year in organizing tea party protests to try to prevent the passage of the health care bill. And McCaughey, who started the false rumors that the health care bill included "death panels," riled up the crowd as if it were 2009 all over again, with accusations that the Obama administration was manipulating science to justify its un-American intrusion into personal liberty. "How can it be that a woman has a right to choose an abortion but not a hip replacement?" she asked, insisting that the Obama health care plan will lead to rationed care.

McCaughey claimed that the current system is superior to most others and that it doesn't need much more fixing than could be accomplished through her proposed 20-page draft bill, which would purportedly fix health care mostly by restricting medical malpractice lawsuits and allowing the sale of insurance policies across state lines. As proof of the system's current merits, she claimed that 1 out of 4 men in Europe diagnosed with prostate cancer die from it, unlike virtually 99 percent of American men who live after a similar diagnosis. (This claim has been debunked by, which notes, "Prostate cancer often doesn’t require treatment, so the aggressive screening common in the U.S. turns up both early cases and cases that would never need intervention. This leads to an inflated survival rate in the U.S., where asymptomatic patients are more likely to be diagnosed.")

McCaughey has set up a new group to fight the health care bill, called Defend Your Health Care, to rally the anti-reform troops. And clearly the Koch brothers are still deeply concerned about health care reform. But Congress has already shown this year that it’s not going to be able to repeal the bill entirely. So at this point, advocates on both sides are simply waiting for the Supreme Court to weigh in. Consider it the calm before the storm.

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That Honey in Your Bear Might Not Be Honey

| Mon Nov. 7, 2011 10:33 AM EST

Honey Bear: National Honey BoardHoney Bear: National Honey Board

If you've been feeding your kids spoonfuls of honey for their coughs this fall, you might want to think again about where that honey comes from. Food Safety News, a site set up by food safety lawyer Bill Marler, reports today that lab tests show that most honey sold on supermarket and drug store shelves today isn't really honey, according to safety requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration.

That's because it's been so ultra-filtered that it's largely pollen-free. Pollen is a key ingredient in real honey, and thought by some people to have medicinal and allergy-fighting properties.

But according to Food Safety News, you won't find much pollen it in American store-bought honey. Their tests found that:

• 76 percent of samples bought at groceries had all the pollen removed, These were stores like TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Metro Market, Harris Teeter, A&P, Stop & Shop and King Soopers.

• 100 percent of the honey sampled from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.

• 77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores like Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart, Target and H-E-B had the pollen filtered out.

• 100 percent of the honey packaged in the small individual service portions from Smucker, McDonald's and KFC had the pollen removed.

According to FSN, most US distributors are selling pollen-free honey because it's likely coming from China, a country that's gotten into trouble for dumping large quantites of antibiotic-laden, dirt-cheap honey onto the US market and putting American bee keepers out of business. In 2001, the US slapped tarriffs on Chinese honey to prevent it from flooding the market. To get around the tarrifs, China is reportedly laundering its honey through other countries. Ultra-filtering the pollen ensures the honey that ends up in the US can't be traced back to its country of origin.

If you're looking for real honey, FSN recommends buying organic from places like Trader Joe's or farmer's markets, where the honey has plenty of pollen.

Herman Cain: "I'm Going to Be President"

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 3:17 PM EDT
2012 GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain

GOP presidential contender Herman Cain didn't sing, but on Friday he ended his difficult week on a high note when he appeared before an adoring crowd at the Americans for Prosperity (AFP) "Defending the American Dream" summit in Washington, DC. There, he proved that even under a cloud of scandal, rival Mitt Romney can't lay a glove on him when it comes to likability. Cain spoke in the cavernous ballroom of the DC convention center, where he was met with ecstatic cries of support. The first words out of his mouth: "Whose teleprompters are these?" It was a major dig at Romney, who'd spoken a few minutes earlier in a stilted, sober, and tepidly received speech delivered responsibly and carefully from the teleprompters. Cain, unprompted, did an admirable job of making Romney look like something of a nerd, highlighting the real obstacles Romney still has in securing the GOP nomination and ultimately winning the White House.

While Romney delivered canned jokes and policy prescriptions that sounded straight out of Al Gore's playbook circa 1996 ("We've got to combine federal agencies!"), Cain demonstrated that he's never more comfortable than in front of a big crowd. He brushed off the week's brew of scandalous allegations that he may have sexually harassed several women who worked for him at the National Restaurant Association, explaining that such dirt-throwing is to be expected "when you are at the top." The crowd went wild. Cain distinguished himself as a businessman, not a politician, emphasizing his outsider status. "Politicians want to propose…stuff," he said. "I want to get things done!"

Cain also took some jabs at the media—a guaranteed conservative crowd-pleaser. Referring to Thursday's New York Times story suggesting close ties between the Koch brothers (oil company magnates whose money was also behind the AFP summit), Cain looked amused at the notion that somehow his relationship with the Kochs was some sort of state secret. "I'm proud to know the Koch brothers," Cain said. "I am the Koch brothers brother from another mother!"

The performance was a far cry from how Cain spent Monday morning, the day after the sexual harassment allegations broke and he was slated to speak at the American Enterprise Institute about his "9-9-9" tax plan. At AEI, Cain looked beleaguered, and the format didn't work to his motivational-speaking strengths. He was pained to provide specific and detailed answers about his tax proposal, even though he was appearing before a room of serious policy wonks. And he seemed artificially insulated by moderator rules that prevented the reporters in the audience from asking Cain any questions about the scandal, a situation that didn't help bolster his credibility on the issue.

The story has unfolded all week, with more details emerging every day about alleged sexual advances he made toward female ex-employees. But Cain seems to have taken a cue from Bill Clinton and bounced back, at least publicly, and his supporters don't seemed to have wavered as a result, if the crowd at the AFP summit was any indication.

Of course, right-wingers love rallying behind any conservative who they see as under siege by the liberal media. But it was hard not to wonder how Romney was going to compete with Cain. The two are now virtually tied in most polls. Romney may have all the money and ground organization and  lots more political experience, but Cain has the fundamental element that Romney lacks: likability. Cain is truly funny, even if you don't agree with him. And he knows how to rally his troops.

I've seen Romney address similar crowds now a handful of times in the past two years, and he never, ever seems to hit the mark and connect with the people in the audience. I used to think it was because the evangelicals didn't like him. Several of his speeches I've watched have been at the Values Voter summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, so the crowd tends to skew heavily religious. But the audience on Friday was more of a fiscal-conservative crowd. They are the people bused in to tea party rallies and anti-health care reform town halls, who care a lot about shrinking the size of government and not quite as much about social issues like abortion. I thought Romney might strike a chord here, even if it was delivered from a teleprompter. But even the AFP crowd couldn't get excited over Romney's speech, not even when he endorsed one of their favorite policy prescriptions: the balanced-budget amendment.

Herman Cain might not have any policy smarts, he doesn't know squat about foreign policy, and there's that whole alleged sexual harassment thing. But compared to Romney in public, he is positively Reaganesque: an eternal optimist who exudes confidence in his abilities, if not necessarily his command of the details. "I'm going to be president," he declared Friday to a raucous crowd that sounded a lot like they really believed him. 

Anthony Weiner's Revenge

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 4:54 PM EDT
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.)

When prosecutors charged executives from the precious metals company Goldline with fraud on Tuesday, it marked an unusual victory for someone who hasn't had many wins lately: former New York congressman Anthony Weiner.

Before he became infamous and ultimately resigned for tweeting photos of his private parts to women he met on the internet, Weiner had earned a reputation as a defender of consumer rights. Among his biggest campaigns was an effort to rein in sleazy gold dealers, from those who were taking advantage of the recession with dubious "cash for gold" deals to shady coin operations like Goldline, who, as Mother Jones reported last year, made millions by peddling their wares on the talk shows of right-wing hosts like Glenn Beck.

Alleged Waffle House Terror Plotters Inspired By Former Militia Author

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 1:30 PM EDT
Mike Vanderboegh, speaking at a 2010 "open carry" rally in Ft. Hunt, Virginia

It's not unusual for people cooking up a terrorist plot to take their inspiration from a novel. Timothy McVeigh was reportedly inspired to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building by the book The Turner Diaries. The Georgia seniors meeting at Waffle House who were recently apprehended by the FBI for allegedly plotting to kill millions of Americans to save the Constitution also seem to have had a literary influence: Mike Vanderboegh, and his novel, Absolved.

Vanderboegh is a longtime militia activist, often associated with the Oath Keepers (thought he says he's not a member), and he's been active in the Minutemen group that "patrols" the US border to keep illegal immigrants out of the country. His book is about small groups of underground miliita groups who plot to assassinate key law enforcement and judicial officials as a way of fighting back against gun control and gay marriage. Vanderboegh has called it "a combination field manual, technical manual and call to arms for my beloved gunnies of the armed citizenry."

I wasn’t too surprised to see Vanderboegh's name pop up in the Georgia case. That's because I saw him in action last year when he spoke at an "open carry" gun rally in Ft. Hunt, Virginia, where a handful of gun nuts and Oath Keeper-types had assembled as close as they could to the District line with a loaded weapon to press for looser gun laws.

Vanderbough claimed to be just "a fat, old scribbler with congestive heart failure and diabetic feet." But he gave a fiery speech at the event that was an invitation to violence. Vanderboegh proclaimed that he was trying to "get the attention of people who are pushing the country towards civil war and that they should back off before someone gets hurt." He led the crowd in cheers of "Oh HELL no!" and warned that "there are going to be consequences for pushing people like us back."

At the time, Vanderboegh was reveling in a spate of media attention he'd gotten thanks to his online calls for followers to throw bricks through the windows of congressional Democrats for passing health care reform. On his blog, the Sipsey Street Irregulars, he had written:

If you wish to send a message that Pelosi and her party [that they] cannot fail to hear, break their windows. Break them NOW. Break them and run to break again. Break them under cover of night. Break them in broad daylight. Break them and await arrest in willful, principled civil disobedience. Break them with rocks. Break them with slingshots. Break them with baseball bats. But BREAK THEM."

Vanderboegh expressed surprise when some people actually took him seriously and did throw bricks through the windows of congressional offices. But he wasn't sorry. He told the Washington Post that there were a lot of Americans who "are not only willing to resist this law to the very end of their lives, but are armed and are capable of making such resistance possible and perhaps even initiating a civil war."

Today again, though, he seems a bit shocked to hear that his book, which isn't even published except for a few chapters online, may have inspired some old people in Georgia to allegedly plot a bioterror attack. He has written some angry blog posts arguing that his book is in no way connected to the Waffle House Four:

Absolved is fiction. I hope it is a "useful dire warning." However, I am as much to blame for the Georgia Geriatric Terrorist Gang as Tom Clancy is for Nine Eleven.

Vanderboegh, though, seems to be enjoying the attention. He kindly linked to the Mother Jones story on the Georgia indictments in a roundup of all of his media coverage. He's even posted some stock quotes for lazy journalists seeking comment. Here's a good one:

I congratulate the FBI on their ability to sniff out and entrap old, feeble minded Georgia morons with dreams of terrorist grandeur. Now if they could just apply some of that industry to telling us the truth about the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, we'll all be better off.

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