Here’s a lesson in how frustrating it can be to observe the United States Congress at work.
Yesterday, the body once again failed to fund payments to black farmers discriminated against by the USDA two decades ago. The payments, which have broad bipartisan support and stem from an earlier class action lawsuit known as Pigford, have already been negotiated between the farmers and the Administration, which in February agreed to pay $1.15 billion in claims. (The class action lawsuit was settled in 1999 and already more than $1 billion has been paid to black farmers who a court found were mistreated by the USDA. Shirley Sherrod was one of the claimants in the original suit. The case was later re-opened on behalf of black farmers who said they were owed money too but did not file claims by the required deadline.)
But this second pot of money, which the Administration has already agreed to pay, won’t be available unless appropriated by Congress. All year, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln – head of the agriculture committee – has been trying to get the funding through. (Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has also championed the move.) In fact, the $1.15 billion in funding has actually already passed the House and Senate, but only as an add-on to various unrelated legislation that never emerged from a conference committee including the lawsuit money.
Then yesterday, stand alone legislation was introduced that would have provided funding for the Pigford case and one other negotiated settlement that concerned payments to Native Americans who claim they were bilked out of some $3.4 billion. Supporters in the Senate tried to get the legislation passed by unanimous consent – used in place of a roll call vote. But Republican Sen. John Barrasso, who says he agrees the Native American settlement needs to be paid out, objected, saying he wants to change some terms of that agreement. He said nothing about Pigford and the upshot is that the funding for black farmers will have to wait as well.
Passing the funding for the two cases would fulfill a campaign promise by President Barack Obama to resolve long-festering complaints.
John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association, said both parties share the blame of leaving the work undone before the Senate adjourned for it’s month-long August recess.
“It’s just partisan division, one party against another,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment for the American people that they can’t get a bill passed that everybody supports.”