Senate Punts Again On Settlement For African American Farmers

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August 6, 2010 11:47 a.m.

The Senate tried twice yesterday to pass the Pigford II settlement, a $1.15 billion authorization for African-American farmers who were discriminated against by the USDA. The Senate failed, twice — and now the authorization will have to wait until September, when senators return from recess.The settlement has already been agreed to by the plaintiffs (that is, the African-American farmers who had faced decades of discrimination) and the U.S. government. It was announced in February by President Obama. But Congress must authorize the funds before they can be distributed to the thousands of farmers who were denied loans and other assistance by the Agriculture Department because of their race.

After being attached to and stripped from a variety of bills over the past few months, it seemed like it would pass before recess, and Majority Leader Harry Reid met twice in the past 10 days with John Boyd, the head of the National Black Farmers Association. But it just didn’t happen.

Yesterday’s failures came in the form of two objections to two unanimous consent requests. Senate leaders had tied the Pigford II money to another settlement, known as Cobell, which would grant $3.4 billion to Native Americans whose land trust accounts were mishandled by the government.

But Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the ranking member on the Indian Affairs Committee, objected. He objected because, in the settlement by the courts, there’s a $100 million cap on lawyers’ fees. He wants the fees capped at $50 million.

Barrasso argues that changing the cap would benefit the plaintiffs by allowing more of the settlement money to go directly to them, and he’s gone so far as to introduce new legislation to that effect. But because the settlement has already been agreed to by all parties, if it’s changed, it will have to go back to court for a hearing.

“Senator Barrasso’s legislation reflects the concerns he heard from people throughout Indian Country. He believes it’s important to address the concerns and finalize the settlement as quickly as possible,” his spokeswoman told TPMmuckraker.

But even if Pigford II was brought forth on its own for a vote, Senate Dems believe, it wouldn’t pass. Republicans, one aide says, would find another excuse to object.

“They wanted to pay for it and we paid for it,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid. “That lays bare that it’s about ‘Just Say No.'”

Democrats, including Sen. Byron Dorgan (ND), chairman of Indian Affairs, say there’s no place for the Senate in the settlement process.

“My colleague from Wyoming, I think, wishes he was one of the negotiators,” Dorgan said on the Senate floor last night. “That’s not the role of the United States Senate.”

Asked if Democrats were open to negotiating the actual terms of the settlements, Manley echoed Dorgan: “The settlement was agreed to … There’s no justification for the U.S. Senate to insert themselves into the process.”

Meanwhile, the Pigford II settlement is five months overdue. From a statement released by Boyd, of the National Black Farmers Association:

“I have been to many funerals of Black farmers who passed this year and never saw justice. What will I tell the next family?”

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