WASHINGTON - The Senate has unanimously approved $4.55 billion to settle longstanding claims that the government discriminated against black farmers in making loans and mismanaged trust accounts for American Indians.
The Senate voted unanimously to approve the two settlements, which include $3.4 billion for the American Indian trust account holders and $1.15 billion for a class of black farmers. The bill now goes to the House for approval.
The House already approved similar measures twice this year, but the measures stalled in the Senate.
In the class action Pigford v. Glickman, tens of thousands of black farmers claimed the government racially discriminated in loan and benefit programs from 1981 through 1986 and denied the farmers the opportunity to file for relief. The farmers also claimed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to investigate and resolve years of civil rights complaints.
In Cobell v. Salazar, filed in 2006, American Indians sued the government for allegedly mismanaging individual trust accounts involving oil, gas, mineral and other royalties from tribal lands. The $3.4 billion settlement, reached in December, includes a $1.4 billion trust fund, a $60 million scholarship fund and $2 billion to repurchase tribal lands that the government was supposed to be holding in trust.
"Black farmers and Native American trust account holders have had to wait a long time for justice, but now it will finally be served," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement Friday. "I am heartened that Democrats and Republicans were able to come together to deliver the settlement that these men and women deserve for the discrimination and mismanagement they faced in the past."
The Network of Black Farm Groups and Advocates called the Senate passage of the bill a "momentous occasion," saying its members "support the Secretary of Agriculture's efforts to resolve all of the outstanding lawsuits against the USDA for discrimination of underserved farmers."
"President Obama and I pledged not only to treat all farmers fairly and equally, but to right the wrongs of the past for farmers who faced discrimination," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Friday.
"Today, the Senate took a bold step and provided the funding to give relief to black farmers who have suffered from discrimination that is well-documented and has been affirmed by the courts. ... This announcement marks a major milestone in USDA's efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history."
President Obama also praised lawmakers for advancing the bill.
"I applaud the Senate for passing the Claims Settlement Act of 2010," Obama said in a statement Friday.
He said the administration "continues to work to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers against the USDA."
"I urge the House to move forward with this legislation as they did earlier this year, and I look forward to signing it into law," Obama said.