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.

Killing the Fairness Doctrine. Again

| Fri Jun. 10, 2011 5:19 AM EDT

How many times does it take to kill a federal rule before it's really dead? Apparently at least two if you are a conspiracy-minded Republican.

For the past three years, conservatives have been clinging to a notion launched by Rush Limbaugh back in 2008, which suggested that President Obama had nefarious plans to shut down talk radio by invoking something known as the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine is a long-dead but once controversial policy that was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure broadcasters presented balanced views in their coverage of controversial subjects.

While well intended, the Truman-era rule ultimately encouraged broadcasters to avoid touchy topics altogether, rather than seek out contrasting viewpoints. After criticism from broadcast journalists who saw the rule as a major violation of their free-speech rights, the FCC abolished it in 1987. Democrats attempted to revive the rule, but President George H.W. Bush threatened to veto the legislation (as Ronald Reagan had in 1987), and those efforts failed. Since then, the Fairness Doctrine has largely been relegated to textbooks on media law—that is, until it was resurrected as the latest conservative bugaboo.

Since 2008, conservative legal organizations around the country have dedicated whole panel discussions at their conventions to the nonexistent Fairness Doctrine, helping to keep alive the preposterous notion that Obama might somehow resurrect the old rule to "hush Rush." (You can watch one of the most absurd talks here.) There was never even the tiniest bit of evidence that Obama intended to revive the old rule, but Republicans have refused to let the issue go. Now that they control the House in Congress, Republicans intend to use their new power to make sure that the Fairness Doctrine is really, really, extra dead, just in case it should be revived like some sort of federal zombie by liberal Democrats.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), have asked the FCC to officially take the Fairness Doctrine off the books. And what do you know? The commission's Obama-appointed chairman, Julius Genachowski, has agreed. NewsMax doesn't say whether the FCC chair is a Rush fan, but Genachowski responded to Upton in a a letter noting that he had long opposed the Fairness Doctrine because it “holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas.”

The FCC chairman wrote:

“I fully support deleting the Fairness Doctrine and related provisions from the Code of Federal Regulations, so that there can be no mistake that what has been a dead letter is truly dead,” he wrote. “I look forward to effectuating this change when acting on the staff’s recommendations and anticipate that the process can be completed in the near future.”

Will erasing the Fairness Doctrine from the federal rule books finally put an end to the conspiracy theory? Well, if the president couldn't put an end to rumors that he was born in Kenya by releasing his birth certificate, it seems unlikely that just pretending like the Fairness Doctrine never existed will be enough to silence paranoid conservatives. But you never know.

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Meet Obama's Primary Challenger

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

Once it became certain that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) wouldn't be challenging President Obama from the left next year, as some liberals had hoped, it seemed like the president could look forward to smooth sailing through an uncontested nomination process. But it looks like the ride won't be without a small bump. Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry has announced his intention to challenge Obama in the Democratic primary, and he's going to start running ads Thursday in Iowa, where he'll be campaigning at a homeschooling convention.

Terry made a name for himself as the founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, but even the pro-lifers there found his antics a little extreme (he essentially justified the murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller), and they broke with him years ago. Since then, he's been a one-man anti-abortion sideshow, appearing at tea party rallies dressed in chains and a death mask, getting arrested at Obama's speech at Notre Dame in 2009, acting out granny-killing death panel skits to protest health care reform, and generally making a nuisance of himself.

But lest you think that Terry is a single issue presidential candidate, his ads will denounce the president on a host of issues—everything from Obama's position on gays to the Wall Street bailout, and from China to oil drilling in the arctic. Terry claims that he will be expressing what Republican leaders should be saying but are too afraid to. "I am simply saying what John Boehner or Mitt Romney should say daily; apparently they do not posses the courage or clarity of thought," he said in a press release announcing the new ads.

Terry is aware he has no hope of defeating Obama. "I'm not delusional," he says, in a video message to tea partiers. (He claims he was a tea partier before the tea party was hip.) Terry explains that beating Obama is not the point. "The point is to beat him up." He plans to publicize his campaign by, among other things, running ads during next year's Superbowl showing photos of dismembered fetuses.

This won't be Terry's first run for office. He's run twice before, once for Congress in upstate New York in 1988 (read a funny story about this race here, written back then by Mother Jones bureau chief David Corn). In 2006, he mounted a primary challenge to a Florida state senator who'd blocked legislation designed to keep Terri Schiavo alive. Both times he ran as a Republican. But apparently, he's still mad that the GOP not only failed to support his campaigns but actively obstructed them, so this time around, he's decided to torment the Democrats. Which is probably a good thing. He will at least give some of those poor reporters covering the Democratic primary something to do for the next year. If nothing else, Terry can be pretty entertaining. Check out Terry's new Iowa ad here:

Immigration Courts: Still Backlogged Despite New Judges

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 8:30 AM EDT

One of the many legacies George W. Bush bequeathed to his successor in the White House was an utterly broken system of immigration courts. At the same time the Bush administration was deporting record numbers of immigrants, it was using the nation's immigration courts as a dumping ground for political hacks who weren't qualified to serve on the regular federal bench. Rather than hire candidates based on experience, the Justice Department, under the guidance of former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, hired judges based on political loyalties and connections. A crushing caseload combined with the highly politicized environment left the immigration courts suffering from high turnover among judges and a vacancy rate that had reached 1 in 6 judgeships. By the time President Obama took office, the case backlog surpassed 200,000, with asylum-seekers and other petitioners waiting on average more than 400 days for a hearing.

Obama pledged to do something about all of this, even while promising to deport an additional 400,000 people this year. The administration has been hiring judges furiously, adding 44 new immigration judges to the bench over the past year, many of whom were filling slots that had been vacant since 2006. But a new study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) finds that far from solving the problem, those new judges seem to be barely stemming the tide of cases.

TRAC is a nonprofit that compiles data from the federal government and regularly crunches the numbers to see what comes out. They've been tracking immigration cases for a number of years. According to their data, the number of pending immigration cases has reached an all time high of more than 275,000, and wait times are almost twice as long now as they were at the end of 2008. Immigrants looking for legal relief in California have the longest wait times, with an average of 660 days, up from 639 days just a few months ago. And the problem is likely to get worse as the Department of Justice's hiring spree comes to an end.

Juan Osuna, the new director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that the hiring efforts had come to an end thanks to a budget freeze. He estimated that the courts would lose at least 10 judges a year through attrition, and that the judicial crisis would continue. It's an especially bad piece of news for the Armenians in the queue for asylum. TRAC estimates that Armenians have the longest wait time of any nationality in the courts, with the average case sitting around for nearly 900 days. While the Bush administration might be to blame for screwing up the immigration courts in the first place, the current mess will soon be owned entirely by Barack Obama.

The Bush Tax Cuts: Ten Years Later

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

You probably didn't realize it, but June 7, 2011, is a momentous day in US history. It marks the 10-year anniversary of the signing into law of the Bush tax cuts, a day when President George W. Bush helped replace an unprecedented federal budget surplus with a mountain of debt in order to slash taxes for rich people (including dead ones). The anniversary of the cuts comes at a particularly fortuitous moment, with the political classes deep in debate over the increase in the federal deficit. Now is a good time to take a look back to see just how well those tax cuts have worked out for the country. Some highlights, with data from the Economic Policy Institute:

Big debt: Between 2001 and 2010, the Bush tax cuts added $2.6 trillion to the public debt, 50 percent of the total debt accrued during that time. Over the past 10 years, the country has spent more than $400 billion just servicing the debt created by the cuts.

Supply-side failure: Far from paying for themselves with increased economic activity as promised, the tax cuts have depleted the public treasury. Tax collections have plunged to their lowest share of the economy in 60 years.

No jobs: Between 2002 and 2007, employment increased by less than 1 percent when the economy was supposed to be expanding. Employment growth barely kept pace with population growth. Between the end of 2001, when the country was in a recession, and the peak of the real estate bubble, er, economic expansion in 2007, the US economy performed worse than at any time since the end of World War II.

Rich people benefit: The best-known result of the Bush tax cuts is that virtually all the benefits were conferred upon people who didn't need them at all and who didn't use the money to, say, create more jobs or pay their workers better. Median weekly earnings fell more than 2 percent between 2001 and 2007. Meanwhile, people making over $3 million a year, who account for just 0.1 percent of taxpayers, got an average tax cut of $520,000, more than 450 times what the average middle-income family received.

Entitlements for trust-fund slackers: For a party that likes to talk about the virtues of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, personal responsibility and entrepreneurship, the Bush tax cuts were like an entitlement program for the already entitled. You'd be hard pressed to find a better way to create a lazy leisure class than by eliminating the estate tax. But that's what Republicans did when they reduced and then phased out the estate tax, ensuring that the country would be plagued by people like this guy for decades to come.

For a graphic view of the dramatic change in wealth inequality fueled in part by the Bush tax cuts, check out these amazing charts created by Mother Jones editor Dave Gilson.

Meanwhile, a few liberal groups are going to commemorate the tax-cut anniversary by holding protests around the country highlighting the sorts of things that didn't get funded while Republicans were slashing taxes for rich people. Activists in Fredericksburg, Virginia, will have a mock toilet on hand that partipants can flush money down, symbolizing money that went to rich people rather than to schools or other critical services.

The Every Child Matters Education fund, which is urging people to participate in the rallies, points out that in 2001, before the tax cuts went into effect, the federal government invested $8,634 in inflation-adjusted dollars for every four-year-old in Head Start, the Great Society-era early childhood program designed to help prepare poor kids to do well in school. In 2011, that investment declined to $7,824 per child. Funding for the Social Services Block Grant, which funds programs that combat child abuse and neglect, among other things, has dropped more than 20 percent in real dollars. In the long run, it's clear that the legacy of the Bush tax cuts will be a huge debt that this generation of children will be largely unprepared to do much about.

What Not To Do In Iowa

| Mon Jun. 6, 2011 5:11 AM EDT

Is speaking Chinese on the campaign trail a plus? Former Utah governor, ex-ambassador to China, and current GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman is about to find out. On Friday, Huntsman appeared before a national audience of evangelical activists convened by former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed. Introducing Huntsman, Reed ran through the candidate's resume, which included long stints of living abroad, both in Taiwan and later in China as President Obama's ambassador. He noted that Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin, but promised his speech would definitely be in English.

Huntsman had other plans apparently, launching into his speech with a demonstration of his Chinese fluency. As his first introduction to the foot soldiers of the Republican Party, it didn't go over very well. As languages go, Chinese is not the most elegant to the English-speaking ear, and it seemed to be especially jarring to the nearly all-white crowd of evangelicals, who listened with shock. You could almost see the elderly Christians from Wisconsin thinking "Manchurian Candidate."

Huntsman's Chinese-speaking on the stump might be even worse for his prospects than John Kerry speaking French in 2004. Americans think even less of the Chinese than they do of the French, and more importantly, they view China as a serious threat to American prosperity, unlike those lazy French people who have a protest every time someone suggests they work past 50. Polls going back decades show that many Americans, especially Republicans, take a dim view of the Chinese, a phenomenon that some researchers attribute to 19th Century anti-Chinese immigration laws. In 1999, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that 34 percent of those who responded admitted they wouldn't want to see a Chinese-American person elected president, a figure the group had never encountered in similar surveys of attitudes towards blacks or Jews.

Americans really don't like the country of China, either, which they view as a currency-manipulating thief of good American jobs. A January Pew survey found that 36 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China, and the percentage of Americans who see China as the country posing the greatest threat to the US nearly doubled over the past two years, eclipsing North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan. Views of China are even bleaker among Republicans, especially those who are tea party sympathizers. More than 70 percent of Republicans Pew surveyed believed that China is an adversary or a serious problem for the US.

Huntsman's Chinese connection clearly triggered many of these feelings among the members of the religious right listening to his speech Friday in DC. The candidate earned some polite applause when he spoke about adopting children from China. But the more Huntsman talked about his life in China, the more it sounded like he'd been fraternizing with the enemy—and doing so on behalf of the Obama administration, a role that many GOP voters believe makes him an honorary Democrat. Huntsman's global perspective and linguistic abilities might have endeared him to some Wall Street Democrats, but after Friday's performance, it was hard to imagine that the governor-turned-ambassador was going to win over a lot of Iowa GOP caucus goers by showing up at their barbecues and exclaiming, "Ni hao ma?"

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