August 6, 2010 / 1:29 AM / 9 years ago

Senate leaves without funding black farmers suit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican senator blocked a measure on Thursday that would have compensated black farmers in one of the largest civil rights settlements in U.S. history, again delaying action on a decades-old bias lawsuit.

The settlement, agreed to in February, would provide $1.25 billion to compensate black farmers who were left out of federal farm loan and assistance programs for years due to racism.

Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan requested unanimous consent to approve funding for the settlement but an objection from Republican Senator John Barrasso scuttled the attempt.

This was the last opportunity to finalize the settlement before the Senate breaks for the August recess.

While the 2008 farm bill earmarked $100 million for the farmers, the remaining $1.15 billion to uphold the deal requires approval from Congress.

The U.S. House of Representatives twice passed legislation that would appropriate the funds, but equivalent action stalled in the Senate.

Measures for the funding have come to the Senate floor seven times, and each time failed to pass due to partisan squabbles, said John Boyd Jr, head of the National Black Farmers Association.

Boyd likened the delays in funding the settlement to the discrimination experienced by black farmers involved in the lawsuit.

“It shows that some of the same treatment that happened to the black farmers at the Department of Agriculture is transpiring with the Senate’s inaction to help black farmers,” he said.

The unanimous consent request also sought to appropriate funds for American Indians in the Cobell class-action lawsuit against the Interior Department over the mismanagement of Indian trust fund accounts.

Previous objections to the funding requests have centered on the mega-spending bills they were attached to, as well as a lack of clarity on how the compensation would be paid for.

The measure brought to the floor on Thursday was solely about the settlements, and included offsets required under congressional ‘pay-as-you-go’ rules mandating new spending be offset with cuts elsewhere so not to add to the deficit.

Barrasso objected to portions of the Cobell settlement and called for a full chamber vote when the Senate returns from the August recess in September.

With an August 13 deadline for the black farmers settlement looming, Boyd said he would seek an extension from the Obama administration as well as more engagement in speeding up the funding process.

“This is a shameful situation,” Boyd said. “(Senators) can’t put aside their political bickering and pass a bill so that the black farmers can get on with their lives.”

Boyd said the pressure is on President Barack Obama to step forward with more concrete plans to help since “the Senate dropped the ball.”

The original Pigford class-action lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was settled in 1999.

The first case awarded more than $1 billion in payments and debt relief to black farmers, but tens of thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline. The new settlement allows these farmers to pursue their claims.

Boyd said earlier in the week that black farmers would turn their attention to midterm elections and look to oust the senators not supporting the measure, especially in southern states where they represent a large portion of the voting block.

“Why do we want to send somebody back to the Senate that won’t help us at a time of need?” he said.

Editing by Stacey Joyce

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