Funding for black farmers, Indian Trust Lawsuit settlement stalls again

By Ben Evans
Washington, D.C. (AP) August 2010

Despite broad support, legislation to finalize $4.6 billion in settlements with black farmers and American Indians stalled in the Senate again Aug. 5 amid partisan bickering.

Lawmakers from both parties say they support resolving the long-standing claims of discrimination and mistreatment by federal agencies. But the funding has been caught up for months in a fight over spending and deficits, with Republicans and Democrats arguing over how to pay for them.

Republicans have repeatedly blocked Democratic proposals and did so again August 5th. This time, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., argued that the settlement in the Indian case needs work and made a counter offer that would change parts of it.

An exasperated Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., responded that it’s not Congress’ role to renegotiate the case, which has been in court for 14 years and which the Obama administration is under a court-ordered deadline to resolve.

“My colleague from Wyoming, I think, wishes he were one of the negotiators,” Dorgan said. “Nobody in Congress was a negotiator ... the question is whether we will meet our responsibility.”

In the Indian case, at least 300,000 Native Americans claim they were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887 for things like oil, gas, grazing and timber. They would share a $3.4 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont.

For the black farmers, it is the second round of funding from a class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999 over allegations of widespread discrimination by local Agriculture Department offices in awarding loans and other aid. It is known as the Pigford case, named after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was an original plaintiff.

The government already has paid out more than $1 billion to about 16,000 farmers, with most getting payments of about $50,000. The new money is intended for people – some estimates say 70,000 or 80,000 – who were denied earlier payments because they missed deadlines for filing. The amount of money each would get depends on how many claims are successfully filed.

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.”