Why isn't Washington paying what it owes to black farmers?

For many, the scandal surrounding Shirley Sherrod's dubious ouster from the U.S. Agriculture Department was the first they'd heard of civil rights battles over farm policy, particularly the landmark Pigford case focused on redressing decades of discriminatory policies against African-American farmers.

Filed in 1997 by North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, the class-action lawsuit against the USDA led to two momentous victories for the plaintiffs: In 1999, the black farmers reached a settlement with the government for over $1 billion.

However, many black farmers never had their cases heard because they filed late - over 73,000 petitions that became Pigford II. (The reasons for the late filings have been blamed on inadequate notice being provided, extenuating circumstances like hurricanes, and, according to one of the judges, bad lawyers for the farmers, "bordering on legal malpractice" [pdf].)

On February 18 this year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Washington was settling the Pigford II claims for a total of $1.25 billion. Anticipating this, Congress appropriated $100 million for the settlement in the 2008 Farm Bill, so President Obama requested that Congress include the remaining $1.15 billion in its FY2010 budget.

But Congress never coughed up the money. Sen. Inouye (D-HI) introduced an amendment to the spending bill, but on March 10 the Senate voted 66-34 to end debate, immediately killing the measure.

The Pigford II settlement funding came up again in Congress in June, when a measure to extend unemployment benefits also included funding black farmer claims. But Senate Republicans blocked that bill on a 57-41 filibuster.

Funding the settlement emerged again this month, when Democrats attached it to the emergency spending bill for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The House approved the measure, but last week the Senate again voted it down. In all, 51 senators voted against the version of the bill including funding for the USDA settlement, including 11 Democrats.

Why has the Senate failed three times to provide funding for a settlement the government agreed to honor? The answer likely has to do with election-year politics.

Most in Congress - even deficit-hawk Republicans like House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner - are on record supporting the settlement. But heading into November, they likely don't want to have an additional $1.15 billion next to their name in campaign ads about government spending.

But unless the federal government reneges on the settlement (there's a loophole that allows the USDA to vacate the claims if Congress doesn't give them the money, but the Obama administration has said they won't go this route), they'll have to pay for the USDA claims sooner or later.

As it stands, the Senate is just putting off the inevitable - and playing politics instead of honoring its legal obligation to African-American farmers.

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