United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Department of Justice Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli announced in February that a lawsuit by Black farmers who alleged the agency discriminated against them, had been settled, and that there would be a $1.25 billion payout.
President Barack Obama stated last May that the funds to pay back the Black farmers would be included in the 2010 budget, and Congress was to approve the settlement before March 31 of this year.
At this point, money has still not been allocated.
Recently the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Blanche Lincoln, requested that the Black farmers’ settlement be granted emergency status in order to meet its newest May 30 deadline.
One stumbling block the government is encountering is that in order to grant the settlement emergency status they would have to waive the pay-go rule which in essence, means the government doesn’t really have the money to give away, and politicians are hesitant about allocating the funds and increasing the national deficit. “Congress should move swiftly to provide the funding necessary to fulfill the settlement agreement and close this chapter on discrimination within the U.S.D.A.,” said Lincoln.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed a bill recently that would’ve added the settlement to an existing disaster bill. Passage of the bill would have allocated $1.1 billion of the owed settlement money but it was blocked by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
“By dropping a racially-charged measure into a $5.1 billion disaster bill, at the last minute, [Reid] was essentially threatening senators to give their immediate consent or risk being demonized,” said Coburn.
“Each week or month of waiting means more Black farmers will not live to see a resolution of their cases,” said John Boyd Jr., head of the National Black Farmers Association.
One way to “circumvent the entire headache,” Boyd said, would be to compensate farmers from a fund used to pay plaintiffs, who win suits against the U.S. government. This would not require Congressional action.
“It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been pressing the President to come to the table,” Boyd said. “That’s something he can help do without Congress even being involved.”
If nothing is settled by May 31 the Black farmers have the option of going back to court, renegotiating the terms, or walking away.