Senate derails lawsuit settlement money for black farmers, Indians
WASHINGTON — Black farmers, due $1.2 billion for a legacy of discrimination by the Agriculture Department, suffered a new and disheartening setback this week, despite the national spotlight provided by the quickly disavowed firing of a black worker in the department. The Senate refused again to pay the bill. Opponents say it’s a question of where the money would come from, and that’s a major issue with an election nearing and voters up in arms about federal spending.
Late Thursday, the Senate stripped $1.2 billion for the claims from an emergency spending bill, along with $3.4 billion in long-overdue funding for a settlement with American Indians who say they were swindled out of royalties by the federal government.
Even the attention the Shirley Sherrod case brought to the issue of discrimination at the Agriculture Department couldn’t bring lawmakers together on a deal. Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike proclaimed their support for the funding — appeasing important constituencies — while blaming the other side for not getting anything done.
The result: Thousands of black farmers and Indian landowners will keep waiting for checks that most lawmakers agree should have been written years ago.
“If you say you support us, then, damn it, do it!” said John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and an organizer for the black farmers’ lawsuits. The recent firing of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod has brought renewed attention to the plight of black farmers who were approved for a $1.2 billion settlement. hastily in asking her to resign, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he and the department were keenly sensitive to the issues of discrimination and race given the agency’s dismal track record on civil rights.
Sherrod, who has been offered a new job, says she’s not so sure about returning to government work but would like to talk more with President Barack Obama about promoting togetherness across the country.
“I don’t want to be the fall guy, the fall girl, for discrimination in the Department of Agriculture,” Sherrod said at her southern Georgia home. “I need a little down time to reflect on what’s happened the last few days.”
Vilsack routinely describes his department’s record on civil rights as “sordid.”
For decades, minority farmers have complained of being shut out by local Agriculture offices, well after the days of blatant segregation. African Americans complained that loan committees across the rural South were dominated by white “good ol’ boy” networks that gave the vast majority of loans and disaster aid to whites while offering scraps to blacks. and they have acted far more aggressively than the Bush administration did to resolve minority settlements. The blockade has come in Congress. Leaders in both parties say that they support the funding but that things break down when they try to hash out how to pay.
The money for both the black farmers and the Indian landowners was stripped from the Senate war funding bill Thursday after the House had passed it earlier this month. Senate Republicans objected to a variety of other Democratic priorities as well, insisting they be paid for rather than adding to the federal deficit.
Democrats have offered a variety of proposals, including one package that has tax increases on oil companies and multinational companies. Republicans have objected, calling instead for spending cuts elsewhere.
“This is an interesting game we’re playing around here,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday when asked about the black farmers’ money, arguing that Republicans are simply stalling the funding.
A spokesman for Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky disagreed that Republicans are stalling and noted that several Democrats voted against consideration of the whole package of add-ons, including the black farmers’ money.
“There was no game, only a unanimous, bipartisan vote,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.