Thousands of black farmers may get boost from farm bill
WASHINGTON — The farm bill approved by the Senate last week moved Congress a step closer to reopening a landmark discrimination case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Like its companion bill in the House, the Senate measure would give thousands of black farmers another chance at seeking compensation over claims that they were denied loans or other crop subsidies because of their race.
Critics have charged that farmers had plenty of time to win claims under the original settlement that USDA agreed to in 1999. Reopening the matter now could cost several billion dollars and reward questionable claimants who may not have suffered losses, they argue.
But advocates for black farmers say the settlement was flawed and that many farmers living in rural areas did not know of the deadline for filing claims.
So far, the provision — tucked inside the nearly $300 billion farm bill — has not run into significant opposition on Capitol Hill. Aides said it appears likely to survive in the final version of the bill that Congress sends to President Bush.
“For far too long, this country’s hardworking black farmers were discriminated against by our own government, and this legislation offers a chance for us to continue righting those wrongs,” Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat running for president, said in a statement.
The federal government in April 1999 settled a class action lawsuit from black farmers who claimed they were systematically denied loans and other government aid from local USDA offices. Using a review process that required a lower standard of proof than a civil suit, the department agreed to pay $50,000 plus tax benefits to farmers who could show they faced discrimination. They also set up a more stringent process for larger claims.
About two-thirds of the nearly 22,500 farmers who filed claims were awarded damages, and the government has paid almost $1 billion in compensation.
But about 74,000 additional claims were never heard because farmers missed an October 1999 deadline for filing. The pending legislation would allow those claimants to file entirely new lawsuits or to seek expedited payments of $50,000 under similar conditions as in the original settlement.
To hold down cost estimates, the legislation calls for a budget of $100 million. But that would cover just a fraction of the real cost. If most of the 74,000 late filers sought expedited claims, for example, it would take fewer than 2,000 successful claims to reach $100 million.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, who has pushed for the measure, said the lack of funding makes its passage “bittersweet.” But he said it “gets the cases out of nowhere land.”
“We’re looking at far more than $100 million, absolutely,” he said. “But half a loaf is better than none.”