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.

Memo to Tea Party: The US Government's Budget is Not Like a Family's

Tea party activists see federal government as just a larger version of the average family when it comes to budget issues. That's just not the case.

| Thu Jul. 28, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Tea party activists and members of Congress have a story they like to tell about the fight over raising the federal debt ceiling. It goes like this: If American families ran their households like the federal government, we'd all be bankrupt. It's a pretty common line. So when the Tea Party Express took to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for a hastily arranged (and sparsely attended) rally to urge Republicans to "hold the line" in the debt ceiling fight, it was no surprise that the family-government comparison was on everyone's lips.

"I really equate it to the family," Cindy Chafian, a mother of five who recently moved to Virginia, told me after speaking at the rally, which also drew tea party luminaries like Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.). Chafian, who founded a new organization called the Mommy Lobby, acknowledged that government spending cuts can be painful—just like when a family that has to cut expenses, or when she tells her kids they can't go to the movies because they can't afford it. But over the long run, Chafian said, things work out and get better.

Melissa Ortiz, the founder of a new group, Able Americans, and a proud disabled tea party stalwart, echoed similar sentiments. "If you raise [the debt ceiling], it's just like getting a new credit card," she said, arguing that families have to live within their budgets and the government should too.

The family-to-government comparison is appealing. But in practice, there are huge differences between the federal government and the average nuclear family. "If you want to compare the government to anything, compare it to a business. Typical businesses borrow money and they never pay it off," argues Dean Baker, the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Baker says a corporate board would think a CEO was out of his mind if he came to them and announced that while the company lost money, it had paid off its debt. "Maybe the government is more like AT&T than like me and Joey."

Baker explains that if tea partiers want to frame the debt debate in terms of family finances, they'd be better off to compare the debt ceiling issue to having signed an apartment lease. "We're arguing on whether we're going to send in the rent check," he said. "We're deciding whether we're going to pay our bills or screw someone. We're talking about making payments on commitments we've made."

The tea partiers, though, don't seem inclined to view the debate that way, or even to acknowledge that most families have tons of debt they never pay off, namely in the form of big mortgages. They also don't seem willing to acknowledge that sometimes even a family strapped for cash will seek out a revenue solution, like a second job, akin to the government raising taxes. None of the tea partiers I spoke with was willing to entertain the idea of, for example, letting the Bush tax cuts expire. One man, who was volunteering for a tea party candidate running for a Virginia Senate seat and declined to give his name, even expressed deep cynicism that raising taxes would even do any good. Big companies like GE don't pay taxes now, he said, so why would they pay taxes if they went up?

Still, the handful of tea partiers who came to Capitol Hill Wednesday didn't seem quite as willing to drive the economy into a ditch as some media coverage has implied. Chafian, for her part, says, "I'd like to not see [the debt ceiling] raised, but I'm also a realist." Her husband is a 19-year veteran of the US Navy, so she understands the implications of the government running out of money. If the debt negotiations fail, her family may have to cut its spending. Even so, she still wants to see Congress bring spending more in line with revenue, and also to pass the balanced budget amendment, even though she realizes that making it official would be a long, drawn out process.

The tea partiers also weren't entirely united about the performance of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has been under fire from some tea party groups for not pushing hard enough against raising the debt limit under any terms. "I think he's doing the best he can with what he has to work with," Ortiz says. Just like a family?

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Federal Trade Commission vs. Sleazy Car Dealers

The commission finally takes a hard look at the shady car dealers who prey on service members. Will anything come of it?

| Tue Jul. 26, 2011 7:29 AM EDT

Back in 2009, I wrote a story about how sleazy car dealers prey on young service members. I spent some time in Norfolk, Virginia, where the Navy has one of its largest installations in the country. Not by coincidence, the naval bases were ringed by commercial districts chock full of used car dealerships. These dealers were a scourge on the young enlistees, sometimes even dispatching salesmen to greet them at the airport before they could even get to their first assignments. I found several young men who had literally been kidnapped off the base by car salesmen, who refused to return them to the base unless they bought a crappy, overpriced used car with outrageous loan terms. Military lawyers were struggling to deal with the flood of enlistees whose military careers were being threatened by the bad deals, which often left them heavily in debt long after their cars had died (which often happened just after they were driven off the lot).

Despite pleas from military brass, Congress refused to take action. Car dealers, it turns out, are one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, in large part because they are such hometown players. Car dealers sponsor the local Little League teams, run the Rotary Clubs, and have tremendous sway particularly in smaller House districts. And, of course, they donate a lot of money to lawmakers. They're so influential that they managed to get themselves exempted from oversight by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, leaving them free to continue financing car sales with abusive and overpriced loans.

Two years later, the Federal Trade Commission has finally decided to step in to take a look at the industry and its lending practices. Next week, it will hold the second of a series of roundtable discussions to hear from consumers. This one, held in San Antonio, Texas, will focus on members of the military. Whether or not the roundtables will lead to any real action remains to be seen. But there's no reason to be too optimistic. The last time the FTC attempted to even pass a tepid disclosure rule dealing with used car sales was back in 1981, when it demanded that they post signs on cars indicating all of the known flaws in the vehicle. In a highly unusual move, Congress, literally in the dark of night, vetoed the rule. (Back then, the law allowed Congress to veto rules issued by regulatory agencies, though the power was rarely invoked.)

The veto was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court and found unconstitutional, so the rule was reinstated. But by then, the makeup of the FTC had changed. Before the rule could take effect, the FTC decided to reconsider it. In 1985, the FTC eventually reissued the rule but without the critical requirement to disclose all known defects. That's the last time the FTC went after used car dealers. Nearly 30 years later, the political situation hasn't changed much. If anything, it's gotten worse. So while the FTC's roundtables are certainly commendable, consumers, particularly in the military, probably shouldn't hold their breath waiting for meaningful reform.

GOP Candidate Fred Karger Raises a Few Bucks

Gay GOP candidate reports raising $264,000 for his fledgling presidential campaign. But who needs money when you know how to get your media coverage for free?

| Tue Jul. 19, 2011 7:01 AM EDT
Fred Karger is the first openly gay Republican to run for president.

Upstart GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger, the first gay Republican ever to run for the nomination, is not exactly raising the big bucks. Gay Republicans are either few and far between, or they're putting their money on, well, Barack Obama. But given his unusual niche, Karger isn't doing all that badly either. Lost in all the news coverage of presidential fundraising is this little tidbit: Karger reported raising $264,000 in the last quarter, more than pot-promoter and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who raised $180,000, and not that far behind former Pennsylvania senator and arch anti-gay candidate Rick Santorum, who raised $581,000. Of course, $230,000 of Karger's haul came from a single donor: Fred Karger.

Still, Karger seems highly skilled at getting his media coverage for free. He's made good use of all the indignities heaped on him by anti-gay Republican gatekeepers, who've refused to let him participate in any major televised debates. He's used his years of experience in the opposition research field to win coverage for his attacks on fellow candidate Mitt Romney. Then, last week, he made headlines after he challenged Rep. Michele Bachmann's husband to a debate over his support of "reparative therapy," a discredited form of psychological counseling that supposedly helps gays become straight. Karger urged Bachmann to "come out of the closet" to defend his Christian counseling clinics, which reportedly offer the therapy. Karger used the ensuing media coverage to take a few shots at Michele Bachmann as well, calling her a bigot for her anti-gay views.

Karger is certainly adding some extra color to GOP primary this year. This week, he'll campaign in New Hampshire for a few days before traveling to San Francisco, where "Real World" hottie Mike Manning will headline a big fundraiser on Thursday that could bring in a few more donors to keep Karger's show on the road.

A Tea Party Debt Ceiling Ad

The tea party group, American Grassroots Coalition, tries to bring the debt ceiling fight to the people.

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 11:34 AM EDT

Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of the Tea Party Express and co-founder of the American Grassroots Coalition, wants to take the fight over raising the debt ceiling directly to the people. Her coalition has been secretly cooking up a new TV ad designed to simplify the debate into tea party terms any school kid could understand. In an email Thursday promoting the "big reveal," Kremer says that the ad is the first the fledgling group has done. Of course, the ad hasn't actually made it on to TV. Kremer's group needs a lot more money to move the ad from YouTube to your tube, and she's asking for donations to make that happen.

The ad plays on the tea party movement's favorite theme, which is that, by failing to rein in the national debt and radically cut spending, we are pushing the burden onto future generations. It's a pretty slick production for a group with no money, but so far, it doesn't seem to have hit the viral sweet spot. (Kremer got a lot more attention—and criticism—after she declared on Fox News that the tea party would back whichever candidate the GOP nominated, including Mitt Romney.) The video had only been viewed 364 times by Friday shortly before noon. Check it out here:

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