Washington, DC -- The federal government would have to start paying money owed to thousands of black farmers as part of a discrimination settlement with the Department of Agriculture, under legislation introduced in the Senate.
The bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., would increase by an unspecified amount the $100 million that Congress set aside in last year's farm bill to pay black farmers for years of discrimination.
"We're bringing this legislation to finally bring justice to the farmers in North Carolina and across the country,'' Hagan said, adding that about 4,000 black farmers in her state could file claims. ``No one is arguing with the fact that they were in fact discriminated against. ... The question now is money.''
At issue is how much money will be available to pay claims from as many as 75,000 black farmers.
Justice Department officials recently filed a motion arguing that the fund is "demonstrably inadequate'' and that the law calls for a cap of $100 million.
Justice officials estimate that 65,000 black farmers could file claims totaling about $4 billion. At that rate, Justice officials wrote, the fund would run out after the first 1,600 successful claims.
Lawmakers who pushed for the funding in the farm bill say the $100 million was not intended as a cap.
The Senate bill introduced Tuesday would require the government to start making payments. Once the $100 million was distributed, additional funding would come from the Department of Treasury's ``appropriated judgment'' fund.
Those funds are not limited, and tapping them would mean lawmakers could avoid appropriating funds each year, according to Grassley's office.
"We're making reasonable fixes to ensure that those who have been successful in their cases are awarded what they rightly are entitled to," Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. "We've been working too hard on this for too many years to let bureaucratic procedure and mumbo-jumbo discriminate against African American farmers and ranchers again."
Black farmers held a rally in Washington last month to call for action from Congress and the Obama administration. They complained that they had not received payments from the farm bill and urged lawmakers to increase the fund.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, applauded the Senate bill.
"Prior to this bill, we were stuck in the sand,'' said Boyd, who was headed to Washington on Wednesday to lobby for more support in the House. "This bill would bring a lot of justice to the black farmers. They have been waiting patiently and really too long.''
Despite pledges from House lawmakers, there is no companion bill there.
Thousands of black farmers who were part of what is known as "the Pigford case" received $50,000 payments as part of a class-action settlement in 1999 with the Agriculture Department.
After the settlement, lawmakers - including Obama, then a senator from Illinois - pushed legislation to allow black farmers who missed the deadline for the Pigford lawsuit to file claims. That funding was included in the farm bill.
"We wouldn't have been in this situation if the federal government had lived up to its obligation,'' Hagan said.