WASHINGTON: The US House of Representatives passed and sent to President Barack Obama a $4.6 billion package on Tuesday to compensate black farmers for federal discrimination and American Indians for government mismanagement of trust fund accounts.
Obama said said the vote “demonstrates important progress” in correcting historic wrongs. He said earlier that he will sign the bill.
“And my administration will continue our efforts to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers and others in a fair and timely manner,” said Obama.
In a separate step on Oct. 19, the administration said it would pay up to $760 million to American Indian farmers and ranchers unfairly denied loans by the US Department of Agriculture.
The so-called Pigford settlement, for unfair denial of loans to black farmers by the Agriculture Department, is one of the largest civil rights settlements in US history. More than 13,000 farmers received more than $1 billion in an initial round of payments.
But tens of thousands of people said they were not notified of the settlement and, through no fault of their own, missed the deadline for claims. They will get a chance to make their claims under the new funding. Farmers who qualify for payments can receive $50,000 each.
Representatives passed the bill 256-152, on a starkly party-line vote. All but three Democrats voted for the bill and all but 16 Republicans opposed it.
“This legislation is years late in passing,” said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat. It carries out settlements of class-action lawsuits against the government.
While Democrats said the bill was a matter of equity, Republicans said it was a sloppy grab-bag. Representative Steve King said there was an improbably large number of claims for the $1.15 billion earmarked for black farmers who were unfairly denied loans by the Agriculture Department.
In response, Democratic Representative Bobby Scott said there would be compensation “for those who can prove it.” Claimants must show they farmed or attempted to farm between 1981 and 1996, were hurt financially by denial of USDA benefits and filed a complaint before 1997.
“This is very joyous time for black farmers who have been waiting a long time for justice,” said John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association.
Also funded by the bill is settlement of the so-called Cobell lawsuit over mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts and settlements of four lawsuits over water rights.
In addition, the bill extends for one year a program that provides job training and other aid to unemployed families. — Reuters