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.”
Response of the NBFA
On Saturday morning, John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), spoke with Farm Press. Among his comments:
When did you have an inkling this might go forward in the lame duck session? Were you confident a few weeks ago or was this ‘a go’ just in the last few days?
“I spent some time with (Senate majority leader) Harry Reid in Nevada” shortly before the recent elections. “I did a couple of events with him and he said he’d push it during lame duck. He did what he said.
“(Iowa) Sen. Charles Grassley was exceptional on the Republican side. He worked with other ‘R’s’ helping to get them on board.
“Grassley and Reid really worked together to get this done.
“There were bumps all the way to the end. It was very difficult, and I’m very glad to get out of the Senate, I don’t mind telling you.”
On the funding…
“The total (for the Pigford settlement) is $1.25 billion. There was $100 million (targeting Pigford) in the 2008 farm bill. That is added to the $1.15 billion in the measure” just passed by the Senate.
What are your expectations with this headed to the House?
“I’m hopeful we’ll get it done when Congress comes back after Thanksgiving. I’ve already had some very positive talks with (South Carolina) Rep. Jim Clyburn and others who have been leaders in the House on this.
“I think this will come up after Thanksgiving and we’re moving in the right direction.”
Will the Republicans gaining control of the House have any impact on the vote?
“If it reaches into January (when the new Congress is seated) it’ll be a whole other game, so to speak. At that point, they’d have to come in and reassign committee seats and figure out what their priorities will be.
“So, I have my eye set on doing this in the lame duck and won’t look towards January. Based on conversations I’ve had with those in the House, I feel positive we’ll be moving forward during the lame duck.”
On reactions from class members…
“I’ve been getting a lot of calls. The farmers are excited. Many had given up hope of this ever getting out of the Senate. Yesterday was the tenth time it was brought to the floor.
“This is a breath of fresh air. It’s justice for the black farmers who have just been waiting. Many of them died before seeing this day.”
The Pigford and Cobell settlements were together for the Senate vote. Did that give you pause or were you all for packaging them together?
“We picked up Cobell when it left the White House and there was supposed to be an emergency package with FEMA. … Those key items moved together.
“We were already coupled with Cobell in the House. … I’m a little more comfortable with the lay of the land in the House.
“I’m happy for the Indians, too. (Cobell) is a very old case.”
“During the last interview, I gave my word I’d not give up the fight until the end. … And I won’t until President Obama signs the bill. Hopefully that’s soon…
“Maybe this will be something for farmers to put under the tree. It won’t put them back in business but justice does come. When America is tested, it does the right thing – just not always in the timeframe we’d like.”