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 the last year 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.

CPAC Celebrates Free-Market Entrepreneurship With CEO Whose Company Was Built On Federally Backed Loans

| Fri Mar. 7, 2014 4:31 PM EST

The conservatives who organize the annual Conservative Political Action Convention are big on touting free-market solutions and sticking to their ideals of smaller government and lower taxes. They believe that if the government would just get out of the way, enterprising entrepreneurs and other businessmen would create wealth that would in turn trickle down to even the poorest of the poor. But when it comes to finding business leaders who embody that spirit, the conference organizers seem to have come up a little short this year.

Donald Trump, of course, is in the house. The Koch brothers have been there in spirit, with Koch Industries underwriting the conference's "Radio Row." But for a panel this afternoon called "And Entrepreneurship Shall Set You Free: How to Celebrate Free Market Capitalism in the Popular Culture," CPAC organizers managed to scare up a think-tank fellow, a couple of unknown state legislators, and Gary Heavin, the former CEO of Curves, the fitness clubs for women.

Heavin is not exactly a great example of the virtues of free-market capitalism. He first started running a chain of gyms in his early 20s that ultimately failed. He filed bankruptcy and ended up so broke that he ended up going to jail for failing to pay child support. While incarcerated, he reportedly became a born-again Christian, and went on to later found Curves. The company got off to a pretty good start by catering to overweight women in small towns with strip-mall gym outlets. The chain took off and expanded so rapidly that by 2005, it had about 8,000 outlets worldwide.

But within just a few years, the chain tanked. It was plagued with bad publicity when news broke that Heavin had been donating large sums of money to an anti-abortion group, a move that troubled members of gyms that had been touted as a sort of girrl-power outfit. Some of the franchises cut their ties to the company because of the donations. By 2011, half of its franchises had closed. (Heavin, meanwhile, did a stint on ABC's "Secret Millionaire" that year.)

In stark contradiction with the self-reliant, anti-government principles CPACers tout, much of the Curves' early success was built using federally-guaranteed loans from the US Small Business Administration, which were given to franchise buyers. By 2010, Curves franchisees were bailing on those federal loans in droves, with 16 percent of the loans going into default, the fourth-highest rate of any franchise in the country.

Franchisees complained that the company had abandoned them and was bilking them in ways that hurt their outlets, such as forging partnerships with General Mills to sell lucrative Curves snack bars that franchisees had to purchase at inflated rates. Heavin became a billionaire, but his company faced lawsuits from hundreds of franchisees who alleged that the company deceived them about the potential profits from a Curves franchise and who were ruined financially after buying into the concept. (When a Curves franchise failed, the parent company often sued the owner to recoup lost royalties.) Franchisees alleged that the company had engaged in deceptive business practices, fraud, and that it had violated a host of state consumer protection laws in marketing its outlets. The cases eventually settled quietly for undisclosed sums, and Heavin was personally dismissed as a defendant from one of the larger ones, but the complaints and bad will didn't help the company's prospects.

Heavin was sued for $20 million by former business associates who claimed that they had sacrificed deeply to help him launch Curves—mortgaging their houses, going into debt, even sleeping in their cars—only to have Heavin stiff them on profits they were owed once the company took off. Heavin called the suit frivolous and it eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, but it didn't paint a pretty picture of his business practices. In 2012, with the company floundering, Heavin sold it for an undisclosed sum and moved on to, well, doing panels at CPAC apparently.

For a movement so devoted to promoting the free market, you'd think CPAC organizers could do better.

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Paul Ryan's Superficial Critique of Federal Poverty Programs

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 6:46 PM EST
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) at the 2012 Republican National Convention

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House budget committee, has apparently decided that by pretending to volunteer in a soup kitchen during the 2012 presidential campaign he didn't do enough to prove he's serious about anti-poverty policy. So he and his aides spent about a year examining federal anti-poverty programs and the congressman issued a report on their findings. The study, heralded in the Washington Post as a document likely to inform the GOP budget proposal expected later this month, is hefty, weighing in at more than 200 pages. It seems designed to bolster Ryan, a possible contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, as his party's top dog on policy. But as any student who's padded a paper knows, length doesn't equal depth. And in this case, Ryan's report is essentially an overview of existing federal poverty policies, itemized with a few citations to some research indicating how well they may or may not work. It's a little like Federal Poverty Programs for Dummies, without any policy alternatives to be found. Instead, the report relies on cherry-picked data points to justify slashing entitlements. 

Take the report's description of the Child Care and Development Fund, a federal program that provides a miniscule amount of money to help low-income people afford child care so they can go to work. On the work part, Ryan seems to approve. He notes that data show that single mothers who get a childcare subsidy are—surprise!—more likely to go to work or go back to school. However, the data show that the childcare subsidy also encourages married women to go to work, and here, it's clear, the GOP does not approve. The report suggests that when poor, married women get jobs thanks to the childcare benefit, their kids get totally neglected. Not only that, it asserts that such programs can cause "lower-quality parental relationships." Of course, the the kids of single moms are also supposedly harmed by the subsidy, according to the report, which warns that childcare subsidies are related to increased health and behavioral problems in children, poor school performance—and it makes them fat.

It's hardly a sophisticated analysis of the impact of childcare subsidies on poor families that might come from a real investigation of a federal poverty program—there are no voices from actual program users—but given the source, that's no surprise. Ryan has been trying to convince the public for a while now that he really cares about the poor, and that, driven by his Catholic faith, he's genuinely interested in trying to tackle entrenched poverty. But the proposals he's offered up in the past—big budget cuts to poverty programs, block-granting Medicaid—have almost universally promised to make the suffering of the poor much worse, not better. His anti-poverty proposals have been so severe that he even earned the wrath of the conservative US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which found his ideas in direct conflict with the church's teachings on social justice.

In his latest offering on the subject of poverty, Ryan does champion a few federal programs, namely the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. That's the modern version of the old cash entitlement system for low-income single moms that was "reformed" in 1996 by turning federal assistance money over to the states to administer. The welfare reform bill made it much more difficult for low-income families to access the safety net by putting sharp limits on benefits and imposing stiff work requirements as a condition of receiving help. The Ryan report credits the 1996 welfare reform bill with bringing down child poverty rates and increasing workforce participation rates of single mothers, at least up until 2001, when poverty rates started to spike again. But again, he's writing in a vacuum: The report fails to mention that the main reason for the big drop in poverty and employment rates during that time was a major economic boom that by 2000 had brought the unemployment rate down to 4.0 percent, one of the lowest rates in recorded history, which made it a lot easier for welfare moms to find work.

In addition, even as Ryan champions welfare reform as a poverty killer, he fails to mention that though some measures of poverty went down after the welfare reform law was passed in 1996, the number of households living in deep poverty—on less than $2 per day—has more than doubled since then. So has welfare reform really alleviated poverty? It's complicated. One thing it did do, however, was slash the amount of federal money spent on the program. The welfare budget hasn't increased since 1996, meaning that the $16 billion program has lost a third of its value thanks to inflation.

Meanwhile, the report blames Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the federal disability program that's recently become a favorite target of GOP budget hawks, for preventing people from joining the workforce. It cites a decade-old report suggesting that the program reduces the labor supply—but only of people between the ages of 60 and 64. The Ryan report contends that the program is full of scammers, particularly the parents of disabled children who have an incentive to keep them out of the workforce to keep the disability checks flowing. It claims that SSI permanently prevents children who receive disability payments from joining the workforce after they hit 18, without considering the possibility that these people are on SSI because they're actually disabled and can't work, even if they want to. And critically, Ryan doesn't explain how anyone gets by on $535 a month, the average monthly SSI payment, or how that teeny bit of government money would be preferable to taking even a minimum-wage job.

These are fairly small oversights compared to the report's biggest and most obvious omission, namely any discussion of the current economy and its relationship to poverty. Even as it knocks various poverty programs for discouraging labor force participation, Ryan's study fails to mention the single biggest reason people don't work: not enough jobs. Today, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (which Ryan cites with some regularity in his report), if every last job available in this country were filled tomorrow with an unemployed worker, three out of every five unemployed people would still be out of work.

Without acknowledging this basic economic fact, Ryan's superficial review of federal poverty programs looks suspiciously like a move to help his party justify big cuts to social welfare programs. It doesn't offer any new ideas that might improve programs to help the poor. It's a cheat sheet for GOP budget cutters looking for easy targets.

New Ads Push the Supreme Court to Broadcast Oral Arguments

| Tue Feb. 18, 2014 2:43 PM EST
The Roberts Court

The US Supreme Court is often called on to rule on matters involving political advertising (see, of course, Citizens United). But it's rare for the court itself to be the target of political advertising, especially on TV. But a new coalition is about to unleash a torrent of ads in the Washington DC media market aimed squarely at the nation's high court—to demand that the court itself go on TV.

The US Supreme Court is one of the last places in the federal government where recording devices are expressly prohibited, despite efforts by members of Congress over the past 15 years to change that. (Broadcasting oral arguments is perhaps one of the few issues that both Republicans and Democrats tend to agree on.) Virtually all state supreme courts allow some degree of recording, and 14 federal courts have been involved in a three-year pilot project to study the use of cameras in those courthouses. Yet the US Supreme Court has remained stubbornly resistant to moving into the 21st century, despite overwhelming public support for footage of its arguments.

So a new group of professional media and legal transparency organizations have created the Coalition for Court Transparency to try to lean on the court in new and more public ways to insist that everyone deserves a chance to see how the court conducts its business. One of the biggest arguments in the coalition's favor: The court itself holds only 250 spectators, meaning that for big and important cases, virtually all the people camping outside the court to get a seat won't be able to get in.

"When you think about the most widely followed cases of the last year, litigants hailed from California (Hollingsworth v. Perry), Oklahoma (Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius), and Alabama (Shelby Co. v. Holder)," said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a coalition member. "The idea that these individuals, and other concerned parties from across the country, would have to fly to Washington, find a hotel, and stand in line for hours—or pay someone to do so—just to see justice in action shows how far the Court needs to come to get more in step with technology and transparency today." Here's the ad:

 

 

Bringing oral arguments to the people by video is a noble cause, but also probably a lost one. There was a brief window of hope back in 2009, after Justice David Souter announced he was retiring from the bench. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. had been guardedly open to the idea of cameras in the courtroom, a position embraced by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Samuel Alito allowed cameras into his appellate courtroom while serving on the Third Circuit. And Justice Anthony Kennedy has said cameras are "inevitable." But Souter was a major obstacle to a more open high court. He was a notorious technophobe, whose New Hampshire farmhouse was full books but not a TV screen. He eschewed computers, emails and answering machines, writing his opinions with a fountain pen. He famously announced his views on oral argument broadcasts by saying, "I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it is going to roll over my dead body."

Souter was replaced by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who at the time of her confirmation had indicated that she was supportive of cameras in the courtroom, which she'd had a positive experience with as a judge in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Alas, her position changed quickly once she joined the high court. Last year, she said she believed that basically, the public wouldn't understand the proceedings. "Oral argument is the forum in which the judge plays devil's advocate with lawyers. I think the process could be more misleading than helpful,” she said.

Losing Sotomayor pretty much dooms the cause of cameras in the Supreme Court, given the staunch opposition from Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. But perhaps the ads targeting the court's transparency might have some other beneficial effects, like forcing the justices to experience some of the same sorts of political tactics they're often called on to regulate.

 

 

Mormon Makeover: Missionaries Scrapping the Suits, Door-Knocking

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 12:22 PM EST

Mormon missionaries are universally recognizable worldwide. They're the guys in the starched white shirts, dark ties, and name tags often seen riding bikes through neighborhoods from DC to Monrovia, knocking on doors and trying to convert people just sitting down to dinner. The uniform is so iconic it was easily mocked in the Broadway show Book of Mormon. But the church recently announced a shocking new development: Some of its missionaries are ditching the suits, and with them, the door-knocking, in recognition that having total strangers bug people at home unannounced is perhaps not the best way to win new followers.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the missionaries are going to try some other tactics—like email spam. The church announced over the summer that it would allow missionaries to better utilize social media and the internet to find potential converts. In June, one of the Latter Day Saints' top leaders, 90-year-old church apostle L. Tom Perry, said, "The world has changed. The nature of missionary work must change if the Lord will accomplish his work."

More interesting, even before that announcement, Mormon missions in California's Bay Area had already given up "tracting," or knocking on doors and trying to convert people, in favor of sending young people out to try to do more practical good in the world. They have been requiring missionaries, who generally serve a two-year stint, to perform "two hours of nonproselytizing community service every day, five days a week—up from the normal four or so hours a week," reports the Tribune, noting that the missionaries have, as a result, partnered with community organizations to help poor kids, clean up trash from homeless camps, read to immigrants, clear invasive plants, and volunteer to keep score at local baseball games. There are some limits to their service: no power tools, no ladders with more than four steps, and they have to keep the name tags. But according to the Tribune, the missionaries have suddenly become very popular among organizations desperately in need of volunteers between 3 and 5 p.m. The effort has been so successful that it's expanding to other states.

The change is fairly striking for a church with a long history of being a somewhat closed society best known for its onetime practice of polygamy. In 2008, Gary Lawrence, a Mormon pollster, published a book full of data showing the extent to which Americans disliked and feared Mormons, whose favorability ratings were on par with Muslims, who ranked dead last on the list of American religions. But it's been clear that the LDS church has been making a concerted effort to improve its public image, particularly in the run-up to the 2012 election when Mitt Romney was the GOP presidential nominee. The church has been trying, fitfully, to be more tolerant of lesbians and gays, particularly the Mormon ones. And the move to allow missionaries to ditch dark ties in favor of trash-picker reflector vests and jeans seems an inspired move that could win favor with evangelical and other Christian groups that have long made traditional community service work central to their faith but who also don't consider Mormons to be true Christians.

As with the church's evolution on gays, the movement of Mormon missionaries to embed with the poor unwashed masses may have some unexpected consequences. Mormons are among the nation's most reliable Republicans. Sending young, impressionable youth out into the trenches to work side by side with the 47 percent might not shake their faith in the church, but it might leave them questioning their party.

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