Senate Approves $4.6 Billion for Claims by Black Farmers, American Indians

The U.S. Senate yesterday approved spending $4.6 billion to settle two lawsuits: one by black farmers who alleged racial discrimination by government lenders and the other by 300,000 American Indians who said they had been cheated out of land royalties dating to 1887.

Passage of the measure, by voice vote, unblocks a legislative logjam that has thwarted payouts, negotiated by the Obama administration, of $1.15 billion to the black farmers and $3.4 billion to the American Indians.

“We are one step closer to ensuring that the black farmers and Native Americans in these suits are fully compensated for past failures of judgment by the government,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement after the Senate vote. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said he hopes to seek a vote after Congress returns from a week-long recess on Nov. 29.

President Barack Obama praised the Senate action and urged the House to move forward with the bill “as they did last year.”

The House included the funding in war supplemental legislation it passed this summer, but it must vote on the settlements again. The Senate version of the war supplemental did not contain the funding to settle the lawsuits because Republicans objected to the proposed financing method, saying it added to the deficit.

At least seven times this year, Senate Republicans blocked efforts to include the spending provisions in pending legislation. Their objections prompted repeated complaints by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, who said in an Aug. 5 statement that Republicans’ “petty political calculations” were “denying justice to these Americans.”

Yesterday, Reid said in a statement that justice “will finally be served.”

Discrimination Alleged

The farmers’ 1997 class-action lawsuit alleged discrimination by the Agriculture Department’s lending programs. Under a negotiated settlement announced in February, qualified farmers can collect as much as $50,000, plus debt relief. Others may collect monetary damages up to $250,000.

The Obama administration requested $1.15 billion in its 2010 budget, on top of $100 million that Congress approved in the 2008 farm bill to finance the settlement.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement yesterday that the Senate’s “bold step” to finance the black farmers’ settlement “marks a major milestone in USDA’s efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history.”

One of the largest class-action cases filed against the U.S., the 1996 lawsuit by American Indian plaintiffs accused the Interior Department of mismanaging trust funds that collected royalties for grazing rights and the extraction of minerals, oil and natural gas from tribal lands. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the settlement of that case last December.

“This is a day that will be etched in our memories and our history books,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement yesterday. The settlement “honorably and responsibly addresses long-standing injustices,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jarowley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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