Black farmers, due $1.2 billion for a legacy of discrimination by the Agriculture Department, suffered a new and disheartening setback this week, despite the national spotlight provided by the quickly disavowed firing of a black department worker.
The Senate refused again to pay the bill.
Opponents say it's a question of where the money would come from, and that's a major issue with an election nearing and voters up in arms about federal spending.
Late Thursday, the Senate stripped $1.2 billion for the claims from an emergency spending bill, along with $3.4 billion in long-overdue funding for a settlement with American Indians who say they were swindled out of royalties by the federal government.
Even the attention the Shirley Sherrod case brought to the issue of discrimination at the Agriculture Department couldn't bring lawmakers together on a deal. Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike proclaimed their support for the funding — appeasing important constituencies — while blaming the other side for not getting anything done.
The result: Thousands of black farmers and Indian landowners will keep waiting for checks that most lawmakers agree should have been written years ago.
"If you say you support us, then, damn it, do it!" said John Boyd, a
Sherrod's resignation under pressure from the Agriculture Department over her comments about
race, and the subsequent White House apology, brought fresh attention to the black farmers' claims. In explaining why he acted so hastily in asking her to resign, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he and the department were keenly sensitive to the issue of discrimination and race given the agency's dismal track record on civil rights.
It's a record that Vilsack routinely describes as "sordid."
For decades, minority farmers have complained of being shut out by local Agriculture offices, well after the days of blatant segregation. African-Americans, for example, complained that loan committees across the rural South were dominated by white "good ol' boys" networks that gave the vast majority of loans and disaster aid to whites while offering scraps to blacks.
Sherrod herself was a claimant in a case against the department. She had been part of a cooperative that won a $13 million settlement just last year.
The department also has faced persistent complaints of racism and discrimination in its own hiring, and government audits going back two decades have found that complaints often sit for years without attention.
Leaders in both parties say they support the funding but things break down when they try to hash out how to pay.
The money for the black farmers and the Indian landowners was stripped from the Senate war-funding bill Thursday after the House had passed it earlier this month. Senate Republicans objected to a variety of other Democratic priorities, as well, insisting they be paid for, rather than adding to the federal deficit.
Democrats have offered a variety of proposals, including one package that included tax increases on oil companies and multinational companies. Republicans have objected, calling instead for spending cuts elsewhere.
A spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the money belongs in annual appropriations bills the Senate hasn't passed yet.
The black farmers' settlement is the second round of damages stemming from a class-action lawsuit the government originally settled in 1999. The new money is intended for people who were denied earlier payments because they missed deadlines for filing. Individual payments will depend on how many claims are successfully filed.
The Agriculture Department also faces further lawsuits from Hispanic and Indian farmers.
In the Indian landowners' case, the plaintiffs claim they were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887 for things like oil, gas, grazing and timber. The settlement, 14 years in the making, must be approved by Congress.