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Published March 29, 2010, 08:15 AM

Congress to find funding to settle pending USDA discrimination lawsuits

WASHINGTON — Congress will figure out a way to provide $1.15 billion in payments to black farmers for past Agriculture Department discrimination, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., told Agweek on March 25 after reminding USDA officials that cases brought by Native American, Hispanic and women farmers still are pending.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Congress will figure out a way to provide $1.15 billion in payments to black farmers for past Agriculture Department discrimination, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., told Agweek on March 25 after reminding USDA officials that cases brought by Native American, Hispanic and women farmers still are pending.

DeLauro said she did not know if the money would be passed on an emergency basis, which would mean that other programs would not need to be cut to pay for it, or whether the bill would be passed before March 31, a date on which the plaintiffs in the case could pull away from an agreement with the Agriculture Department and the Justice Department to settle the cases. It is unlikely the bill will be passed before March 31 because Congress is preparing to leave town for two weeks.

At a hearing, DeLauro Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller to make sure USDA does not discriminate in the future because settlement of the suits is so expensive. The settlements “are legitimate,” DeLauro said. “How do we find the resources?”

Waiting too long

Miller noted that many of the cases are old and said USDA is taking action, including training programs, in its Washington headquarters and in the field to make sure USDA employees do not discriminate in the future. The black farmers have charged that USDA discriminated against them in farm and housing loans, and Native American, Hispanic and women farmers have made the same charges.

DeLauro, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd met late March 25 to try to sort out the funding, but did not reach conclusions on how it could go forward.

Dan Glickman, the agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, settled the initial class-action suit known as Pigford I. But some farmers did not file their papers by the deadline, and the 2008 farm bill allowed them to refile their cases under what has become known as Pigford II. On Feb. 18, the Agriculture Department, the Justice Department, the black farmers and their lawyers reached an agreement to settle the Pigford II cases for a total of $1.25 billion, with $100 million coming from the 2008 farm bill and $1.15 million coming from an appropriation.

The settlements for the Pigford 1 cases came out of the Justice Department judgment fund, but Vilsack has noted that the 2008 farm bill said the judgment fund could not be used to settle the Pigford II cases and that an appropriation is necessary.

Boyd said March 24 that he has not decided what action his group would take if the appropriation is not passed by March 31. The black farmers wanted a $2.5 billion settlement, but agreed to $1.25 billion because they are getting older and do not want to fight longer, he added. “If they get their money, they would have a few years to enjoy,” Boyd said.

White House involvement

The White House signaled March 24 it wants the matter concluded. “President Obama is committed to ensuring that the black farmers’ settlement is finalized and that the farmers and their descendants get the relief they deserve,” a White House official said.

“This is an issue he worked on as a member of the Senate, and he is determined to see it through to its rightful conclusion. With this in mind, we are working diligently with Members of Congress to find the best vehicle as we develop a final package,” the official said.

Earlier March 24, at a news conference, Conyers and Boyd complained that, while Vilsack has said that Congress should pass the appropriation on an emergency basis, the White House has not formally submitted an emergency declaration to the House. During the news conference, Conyers had an aide call Vilsack to set up a meeting and invited reporters to go along to USDA. But Vilsack decided instead to go to Capitol Hill.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., also spoke at the press conference and said the farmers should get their money because “they’ve been waiting too long.” Hagan said that Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, had tried to attach a provision to provide the money to the tax extenders bill, but it had been ruled out of order.

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