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Washington Report: Updates from Capitol Hill

Deadline Looms for Black Farmers Settlement

A protester at an NBFA rally in Jackson, Mississippi. (Source: NBFA)
A protester at a 2009 NBFA rally in Jackson, Mississippi. (Source: NBFA)

When Congress goes on its two-week recess next week, it might do so without having appropriated the funds needed to pay the $1.15 billion settlement with black farmers for past acts of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For farmers, that delay means “missing another planting season, more black farmers going out of business, more black farmers dying waiting for justice,” said National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd Jr.

During a Wednesday press conference Sen. Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina), House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (Michigan) and Rep. Robert Scott (D-Virginia) urged the administration to act more forcefully to bring the settlement to a conclusion. During the press conference Conyers called Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s office to arrange a meeting that he insisted take place that evening.

Conyers said Thursday that the meeting, at which Scott, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut), and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (North Carolina) were present, went well and Vilsack is committed to settling the matter, “but that doesn’t get us the money.” He added that he and other lawmakers would meet with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Maryland) to figure out how to satisfy the judgment.

“The USDA is actively working with Congress to find the resources needed to fulfill the Pigford settlement agreement,” said a USDA spokesman. “In recent weeks, Secretary Vilsack has made personal phone calls and sent a letter in support of the President’s budget amendment, and he has urged Congress to appropriate the resources to resolve this important matter.

Lawmakers have yet to figure out where the funds to pay the farmers will come from. Conyers, Scott and other lawmakers have suggested that the judgment be considered an emergency to bypass paygo rules.