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ALL WET: Flooding in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Associated Press/Photo by Chris C. Lark (MLive.com)
ALL WET: Flooding in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Drought then deluge

News | And other news briefs

Issue: "Boy Scout dilemma," May 18, 2013

Midwestern farmers who last year sweltered through the worst drought in half a century delayed plantings in April because of a new plague: flooded fields. Relentless spring rains caused rivers to burst their banks and forced thousands of residents in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan to evacuate their homes. On the Mississippi River, where barge operators in January had lightened loads to avoid scraping bottom, water flowed so high and fast that over 100 barges broke loose from moorings, and several sank.

Oddly, while rain deluged residents and farmers east of the Mississippi, those in states farther west—like Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma—continued to endure extreme drought conditions.

New England bloc

The gay marriage march is poised to reach another state. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has pledged to sign a bill legalizing gay marriage, making the tiny state the 10th in the nation to legalize same-sex unions. State senators approved the law April 24 on a 26-12 vote—with all five Republican members of the body voting in favor—after the state house passed the measure in January. The bill exempts religious leaders from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies against their conscience, but it provides no such provision for business owners who may be called upon to host the ceremonies. 

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The vote further illustrates that civil unions, legalized in 2011 in Rhode Island, won’t appease homosexual activists, who have been filing legislation to legalize gay marriage in the state since 1997. Once the law takes effect Aug. 1, same-sex marriage will be legal in all six New England states.

Executive vacancies

Vacancies in key government positions remain months into President Barack Obama’s second term. The Commerce Department has been without a permanent head since last June, and interim secretary Rebecca Blank is leaving in July, adding to a list of empty seats that already includes the census director and secretary of the Patent and Trademark Office. 

Not all appointments require Senate approval (see “Vacant State” in this issue), but Obama has a track record of controversial picks for those that do. Obama tapped Thomas Perez in March to lead the Labor Department, only days after the U.S. Inspector General released a scathing 258-page report about his work at the Justice Department. The report says Perez, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, engaged in a variety of unprofessional and unethical behaviors, including giving misleading public testimony and brokering backroom deals to accomplish his ideological goals. 

Most of those issues were not raised at Perez’s April 18 confirmation hearing (The Wall Street Journal reported some GOP lawmakers felt they couldn’t oppose a nominee with a Spanish surname), but Republicans are focused on one that could derail the nomination. Perez, 51, last year declined to pursue a case against St. Paul, Minn., that could have netted taxpayers as much as $200 million—in exchange for the city’s dropping an unrelated Supreme Court case Perez thought would undermine the Justice Department’s tactics in housing discrimination cases. “It seems that you’re manipulating the law to get the result you want,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Senate Republicans succeeded in pushing back the committee vote on Perez until May 8 to have more time to look into the St. Paul case. Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise and 42 other House members sent a letter to the Senate opposing Perez’s confirmation, saying he has shown “blatant disregard” for the law and “wasted millions of dollars on frivolous lawsuits,” including one brought against a Florida pro-lifer. The federal judge who dismissed that case said the government’s conduct was “negligent, and perhaps even grossly negligent.”—by J.C. Derrick in Washington

Taking its own medicine

Controversy erupted on Capitol Hill in late April over reports that lawmakers were secretly negotiating to exempt themselves and their staffs from parts of Obamacare. The revelations caused the talks to collapse, but not before some lawmakers claimed the efforts were to fix an error in Obamacare that bars members of Congress from contributing to the insurance premiums of their staffers. The story goes back to the 2009 debates over the healthcare bill: Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, succeeded in getting an amendment passed then mandating that lawmakers and their staffs must get insurance using the healthcare law’s controversial exchanges. Even that version was watered down in the final bill to exempt some senior aides. Skeptics at the time suggested that Capitol Hill was trying to protect itself from the same problems business leaders now face in complying with the new law’s requirements. House Republicans introduced a bill on April 26 that would mandate all federal employees buy coverage through the Obamacare exchanges. The debate lends credence to recent comments of Sen. Max Baucus, D- Mont. “I just see a huge train wreck coming down,” predicted Baucus, who helped write the bill. On April 23, Baucus announced he would retire from the Senate.

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