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 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.

Rep. Darrell Issa's "Religious Freedom" Sausage Fest

There's something surreal about watching a congressional hearing in which a room full of men spend a morning publicly discussing birth control, menstrual pain, ovarian cancer, and migraine headaches. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, convened just such a hearing on Thursday.

The hearing, entitled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama administration trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" was striking for its lack of female voices. Democrats on the committee had attempted to include at least one female viewpoint, that of Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University, a Catholic university whose health plan doesn't cover contraception. But Issa deemed Fluke "not qualified" and plowed ahead despite the obvious flaw of holding a hearing on birth control coverage that doesn't include a single member of the population most likely to use it.

Democrat Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) protested the glaring omission in her opening statement: "What I want to know is, where are the women? I look at this panel, and I don’t one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?"

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) expressed outrage over the nature of the hearing, which not only excluded women but also witnesses who didn't agree with the Catholic Church.  Aiming his criticism at Issa, he said,

I think everyone understands what is going on here today. The Chairman is promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a “war” against religion. He has stacked the hearing with witnesses who agree with his position. He has not invited the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, Catholics United, or a host of other Catholic groups that praised the White House for making the accommodation they made last week. He has also refused to allow a minority witness to testify about the interests of women who want safe and affordable coverage for basic preventive health care, including contraception. In my opinion, this Committee commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless, or worthless, or irrelevant to this debate.

The rhetoric at the hearing got so one-sided that, at one point, the Democratic women on the committee actually left the room, with DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) denouncing Issa's hearing management as akin to that of "autocratic regimes."

The hearing dragged on, with Republicans providing plenty of fodder for future Democratic campaign ads blasting them for being anti-women, with Democrats responding with actual science on the many ways that birth control pills can save lives, not just prevent pregnancy. And on it went, in a proceeding that made it hard to believe it's 2012 and not 1912. After three hours of testimony and questions, the committee took a break, and then returned for a second panel of witnesses. That panel included two women. But of course, they were opposed to birth control requirements, too.

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Rep. Dan Burton's Legacy: Lots of Sick Kids

Dan Burton is wrong about vaccines and autism.

So Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) is finally retiring, after two decades in Congress. He's got a notable record of craziness, having doggedly pursued President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal while knowing full well he'd had an affair himself and even fathered a child out of wedlock. He famously claimed to have shot up a "head-like object" (likely a melon or a pumpkin) to try to re-create the alleged "murder" of former Clinton deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, who committed suicide. But Burton doesn't get enough credit for what may be his lasting legacy: helping turn Americans away from life-saving childhood vaccines.

Burton has said he believes one of his grandchildren became autistic after receiving a childhood vaccination. As a result, he spent many years and lots of congressional resources trying to investigate the alleged link between the two. In 2000, he held a circus-like hearing in which he provided a very high profile platform for the now entirely disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who helped spawn the myth that vaccines cause autism. Wakefield has since lost his medical license for allegedly falsifying the medical histories of the children he claimed had gotten autism from vaccines, among other issues.

As Wakefield's now-discredited, fabricated data started to raise questions in the medical community, Burton defended him, saying in 2002: "Dr. Wakefield, like many scientists who blaze new trails, has been attacked by his own profession. He has been forced out of his position at Royal Free Hospital in England." In 2007, Burton argued that autistic children should be eligible to receive compensation from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, even though there was no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism.

Burton's official endorsement of Wakefield's science has had a wide-ranging impact. He gave high-level approval to an utterly false theory that ended up persuading thousands of American parents not to immunize their kids, leading to a resurgence of a lot of preventable diseases. Whooping cough has surged nationally, largely because of vaccine refusal. In places like California, where lots of parents refused to immunize their kids, whooping cough became epidemic. In 2010, four babies needlessly died as a result. Measles outbreaks are also becoming more common.

So lest people get nostalgic for Burton's good ol' days of shooting up watermelons, keep in mind that his form of kookiness had some very deadly consequences.

Tea Party Roundup: Birthers, Slaves and Super PACs

The tea party movement has been keeping a pretty low profile lately, but that doesn't mean it has disappeared. Tea partiers are still fighting political battles at the local level and gearing up for the presidential election. Here's a brief roundup of recent tea party news you may have missed:

Rewriting US history to white-out slavery: Tennessee tea party activists have asked the state legislature to introduce a bill that would force the state to rewrite school textbooks to excise references to the Founding Fathers that might tarnish the image tea partiers would like to have of them. They don't want school kids to know the founders' uglier side, things like, for example, some of the founders owned slaves, had sex with them, and fathered children with them. In a press conference in mid-January, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the activists handed out materials that said:

Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds, whose website identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran of the Air Force and FedEx retiree who became a lawyer in 1995.

Keeping the birther movement alive: Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips may be bankrupt and thousands of dollars in debt to conservative billionaire and Las Vegas hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson, but that hasn't stopped him from going to Florida this week on a Tea Party Express "get out the vote" tour before the GOP primary. Along with his speaking events on the campaign trail, Phillips is doing his part to defeat Obama by supporting a lawsuit filed in Georgia by birther queen Orly Taitz challenging Obama's qualifications to be on the ballot there. Conceding that similar suits in other states have been dismissed, Phillips remains hopeful that they are the key to defeating Obama in November. "These are must win states for Obama. If he were excluded from one or more of these states, it would become almost impossible for Obama to win reelection," writes Phillips. 

Still Raising Big Money: For all the talk of the tea party movement being "grassroots," they are certainly taking on some of the trappings of the establishment, namely by starting super-PACs. Two big tea party groups, Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks, have both started super PACs that can accept unlimited contributions to use in independent expenditure campaigns during this year's election. FreedomWorks is hoping to raise $5 million to push its free-market agenda through "street-level politicking."

Of course, whether these two organizations really qualify as the tea party movement is an open question. Tea Party Express was started by GOP political consultants in California who were already been attacking Obama in 2008 with outside expenditures, and FreedomWorks is a spin-off of the oil-rich Koch brothers' Citizens for a Sound Economy, a corporate front group that helped the tobacco and other big industry fight regulation and taxes. They're not purely grassroots organizations.

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