Iowa Republicans at odds over farmers’ discrimination

Tyler Kingkade

The Pigford and Cobbell class action settlements were passed in legislation that would provide funding to settle African-American farmers’ and Native Americans’ lawsuits against the federal government for past discrimination.

Thousands of farmers in the cases were denied to have their cases heard. It passed the Senate in the previous session and the House passed it Nov. 30 to move on to President Barack Obama.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “closing the door on an old injustice,” adding, “We recognize that there are other discrimination cases that remain to be resolved, including women, Hispanic and Native American farmers. It is my hope these cases will come to a similarly just conclusion.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, offered an amendment to halt funding for the Pigford settlement, but was blocked by the Rules Committee. King said it’s ripe with fraud, and spoke of the lawsuit being equivalent of their “40 acres and a mule,” referencing to the Civil War era practice of providing essentials to some former slaves.

On the floor of the House, he used the example of a black man who leaves the farm for the city, gets in trouble and comes home to try to stake a claim in his father’s farm to take part in “slavery reparations.”

However, the USDA addressed the concerns and said out of the 15,000 cases, only three were found to be fraudulent.

King still wants the next Congress, when seated in January, to investigate potential fraud in the Pigford cases.

“This means that people who have never farmed and people who have never been discriminated against by the USDA will be receiving tens of thousands of dollars in cash and debt relief simply for having filed a false claim,” King said.

Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who represents Ames, also voted against the measure. Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa; Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa; Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa; and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voted in favor, and Grassley praised the House’s passing of the bill.

“I had hoped to resolve these civil rights issues through the administrative process,” Grassley said. “I knew that if we had to pass legislation, it would take years. As we’ve seen, the legislative process did take years, but these farmers who were wronged by our own federal government agency will now, once President Obama signs the bill, finally be able to plead their case in front of a neutral party and be judged on the merits.”

Approximately 75,000 black farmers filed their claims of discrimination through the Pigford consent decree process past the deadline for their claims to be evaluated on the merits. As a result, thousands of victims of discrimination continue to be denied an opportunity even to have their claims heard.

Grassley worked to put in place a process where these farmers can have the opportunity to plead their case based on the merits. He introduced legislation in 2007 and pressed for it to be included in the 2008 farm bill.

The Pigford II settlement includes several substantial changes from Pigford I in order to better fight fraud.