On Friday, the Senate passed funding approval for the $1.25 billion Pigford settlement announced last February. The settlement – aimed at putting to bed a class-action brought by black farmers who claim long-time discrimination by the USDA -- was brokered following nearly a decade of legal wrangling.   

Cobell, a class-action by Native Americans against the Interior Department for mismanagement of trust fund accounts, was also part of the $4.6 billion Senate funding bill. Also covered in the bill is funding for the settlement of four water rights suits brought by Native American tribes.

Now over the Senate hurdle, Pigford class members must wait for House approval before President Obama can sign the legislation. The House is expected to take up settlement funding before year’s end.

“The time is long overdue to fund the discrimination settlement for farmers who have experienced decades of injustice,” said Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, current Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee following the Senate vote. “All farmers should receive equal access and treatment in the delivery of USDA’s programs and services, and I am proud that we are finally closing this chapter of discrimination within USDA. While funding this settlement will not erase the anxiety and frustrations so many hard-working farmers experienced, it will help compensate their financial losses and finally begin laying the foundation in restoring their faith in the United States government. I applaud my Democrat and Republican colleagues for coming together to pass this important piece of legislation.”

The Senate’s action “marks a major milestone in USDA’s efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Civil rights is a top priority of mine, and since coming to USDA, I have implemented a comprehensive program to correct past errors, learn from mistakes, and take definitive action to ensure that all of our customers are treated fairly.  This announcement is yet another step to help move us forward into a new era as a model employer and premier service provider.”

While happy with the Senate action, President Obama pointed to other class-action cases the USDA is facing. “These legislative achievements reflect important progress (but) they also serve to remind us that much work remains to be done,” said Obama. “That is why my administration also continues to work to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers against the USDA.”