Stories I’d Like to See

Campaign questions, the world’s worst government agency, and medical lobbies

In his weekly “Stories I’d Like to See” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on

1. Mitt’s tax bracket:

Note to television producers or editors about to do interviews with Mitt Romney on the campaign trail: The tax rate for the lower-middle class and middle class (joint filers earning roughly $17,000 to $70,000) is 15 percent. So any of your reporters doing an interview with Romney should ask him if he paid more than 15 percent of his total income in federal income taxes last year, or more than 25 percent—the bracket for income from $70,001 to $142,700.

Because of preferential treatment of capital gains, of “carried interest” income earned by people in the private equity business, and of money derived from offshore investments, as well as other tax breaks, there’s a good chance that Romney didn’t pay at a rate of 25 percent or even 15 percent. Be sure to use “total income” in the question, which would be Romney’s income before taking deductions for many of the tax breaks not available to average wage earners. (Update: Shortly after this column was published, Romney was asked precisely this question, and told reporters that he paid “closer to the 15 percent rate than anything.”)

Romney’s likely answer, based on what he has said so far, will be that he has not decided to release his tax returns but that he may do so later.

To which your reporter should respond: “Yes, I know, but don’t you know—or can’t you check your tax return and tell us—simply what your tax rate was? Or just tell us what it says on line twenty-two on your IRS form 1040 tax return (“total income”) and line forty-four (“tax’”) or line forty-five (“alternative minimum tax”). We’ll calculate the percentage and spare you giving us all the details that you fear will invade your privacy. Won’t you at least tell us that? With all the debate about tax reform, don’t you think voters should want to know if you’re paying taxes at least at the same rate that Americans with average incomes are?”

This is going to be an increasingly big issue; why not have one of your people take the lead?

2. How many years up the river for an abortion?

While we’re on the subject of questions reporters might ask on the campaign trail, here’s another that I can only remember NBC’s Tim Russert asking various anti-choice candidates: “Once you outlaw abortion, how much prison time would you sentence a woman to who has an abortion? What about her doctor? If abortion is murder, then isn’t the woman guilty, at least, of conspiracy to commit murder, and isn’t the doctor a murderer?”

With the Republicans candidates competing to be the most anti-choice, their answers ought to be interesting.

One final question for Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry: “You’re adamantly against activist federal judges interfering with the will of the people by overturning laws passed by state legislatures, right? So why did you go to a federal judge (unsuccessfully) seeking to have Virginia’s laws about getting on the ballot in the state’s Republican primary be declared unconstitutional?”

3. Do Cuomo and Christie run the world’s worst public agency?

Lining up on the long and hideously inconvenient taxi line at JFK Airport a few weeks ago reminded me of a story I’ve wanted to see for years: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey might be the world’s worst public agency this side of Afghanistan. The PA runs JFK, Newark Liberty, and LaGuardia airports, and all three perennially rate among the worst in the world when it comes to on-time performance, restaurants and other concessions, transportation services, and general cleanliness and convenience. Being responsible for what may be the world’s three lousiest major airports (at least the worst three out of five or ten) is an amazing hat trick for an agency that is also jaw-droppingly over-funded, largely through ever-escalating airport landing and gate fees and sky-high tolls on the metropolitan area’s bridges and tunnels.

Then there are the perpetual cost overruns and execution failures for just about everything else the PA does, such as the new commuter rail terminal at the old World Trade Center site. It’s now years behind schedule and likely to cost a billion dollars above its original estimates. Or there are the six-figure pensions routinely paid to PA police officers, many of which result, according to the New York Post, from officers piling up overtime in the years just before they retire. There’s also a policy that allows officers who have been suspended for alleged misconduct or crimes to collect overtime while they are not even working. Another example of PA follies: Its staff—and even its retired staff—get lifetime E-Z Passes so that they don’t have to pay the $12 it now costs to go over the George Washington Bridge or through the Holland or Lincoln tunnels. Such is the sense of entitlement at the PA that when the agency moved recently to revoke these lifetime passes for retirees, it was hit with a barrage of lawsuits from the freeloaders.

New York’s Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey’s Chris Christie—the two superstar governors of their respective political parties—are jointly responsible for appointing the PA’s board and executives. Some newspaper, magazine, or television network ought to devote a whole series of reports to how the PA became the poster child for government that doesn’t work and what the two celebrated governors in charge are doing about it.

4. Lobbying over prostate cancer, medical imaging and other healthcare expenses:

In the last few months there’s been a renewed debate over whether men should get tested for prostate cancer. It began with the release of a federal task force study in December that recommended that men not get the now-routine PSA blood test that looks for warning signs of the disease, because it could result in patients undergoing arduous treatments for a cancer that advances so slowly they’re likely to die of something else long before it will take its toll.

There has been lots written since about the pros and cons of testing, but not enough about the flurry of lobbying the controversy has unleashed as interest groups, such as the push by the Washington-based American Urological Association (prostate cancer is a mainstay of urologists’ work) to make sure that the tests and the resulting treatment continue to be a mainstay of acceptable—and insurable—patient care.

Similarly, as questions continue to be raised about alleged over-testing and over-treatment for other cancers, trade groups like the Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance, or “MITA”—whose Washington work is quarterbacked by Powell Tate, the powerhouse “strategic communication and public affairs” firm—are working to preserve the status quo.

Fights over these kinds of multibillion-dollar issues that affect millions of people but are hidden from public view are bonanzas for lobbyists and great grist for reporters who dig into them.

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative. Tags: , , , , ,