American Indian landowners and African-American farmers who claim they were subjected to mistreatment and discrimination by the government may soon share $4.6 billion after years of litigation.
A House vote expected Tuesday afternoon would complete congressional action and send the authorization to President Barack Obama, whose administration brokered settlements on the lawsuits over the past year.
The package would award some $3.4 billion to American Indians who have battled in court for nearly 15 years over claims they were cheated out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department for resources like oil, gas and timber. Another $1.2 billion would go to African-Americans who claim they tried to farm in recent decades but were denied loans and other assistance from the Agriculture Department.
The settlements have broad bipartisan support but had stalled on Capitol Hill over costs until the Senate broke a stalemate earlier this month, approving the legislation without opposition. Similar versions have easily cleared the House, and it is expected to pass again despite criticism from some Republicans.
As debate opened Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said the individual settlements may have merit but that lumping them together in a costly bill doesn’t serve taxpayers well.
“Inasmuch as people have been discriminated against in the past, we object to that, we abhor it,” Foxx said. But she said the bill totals some 270 pages and would cost nearly $6 billion, including nearly $1 billion to resolve several additional lawsuits over Indian water rights.
Other Republicans such as Steve King of Iowa and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota have argued the black farmers program is rife with fraud.
Democrats countered that the bill includes safeguards to protect taxpayers while offering fair compensation for people who were mistreated.
“We just can’t have this kind of discrimination going on in this country. America needs to pay its debts,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.
In the Indian case, at least 300,000 Native Americans claim they were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. The plaintiffs originally said they were owed $100 billion, but signaled they were willing to settle for less as the case dragged on.
The case is known as Cobell after its lead plaintiff, 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 USDA offices.
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 who were denied earlier payments because they missed deadlines for filing. Tens of thousands of new claims are expected, and the amount of money each would get depends on how many are successful.
The case is known as Pigford after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was an original plaintiff.
The bill also includes nearly $1 billion to settle several long-standing Indian water-rights lawsuits and extends for one year the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which gives grants to states to provide cash assistance and other services to the poor.
The costs of the bill would be offset by diverting dollars from a surplus in nutrition programs for women and children, extending customs user fees and new efforts for the Treasury to recoup excess unemployment insurance payments.
Would-be farmer Carl Eggleston said he has been waiting for the bill to pass for years so he can refile his claim for the discrimination he says he faced when he tried to start a hog farm on his Virginia property.
The African-American from Farmville said his application for a government loan was never even processed, and he ultimately turned to other work. Eggleston, 60, said he worked at a furniture store and a shoe company before eventually moving into the funeral home business, where he works today.
“I could never get it off the ground,” he said of his venture to expand on the handful of hogs his father raised.
Source: The Associated Press.