November 19, 2010

BLACK FARMERS DISCRIMINATION

     Mr. CARDIN :  Mr. President, I rise today to talk about the Pigford II settlement pending full action by the U.S. Senate.    

     Mr. President, we all know that farming is a difficult occupation.   The hours are long, the weather unpredictable and the challenge of competing in a global marketplace intense.   Tens of thousands of black farmers have had to face all those normal challenges.   Tragically, they have had to deal with a challenge that was unique to them based solely on race.   The U. S. Department of Agriculture was discriminating against them.

     More than twelve years ago black farmers across America brought a class action suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for racial discrimination.   The history of that discrimination is a sad one, and it is well documented.  

     Farmers, like all businesses, need access to loans.   They need to borrow money for expensive equipment and they need funding to help them when droughts strike or when markets collapse.   The Congress has recognized this need for decades, and we have established special loan programs in the USDA to support these special needs.  

     Tragically, tens of thousands of black farmers were the victims of systemic discrimination.   During the 1980s and 1990s, the average processing time for a loan application by white farmers was 30 days, while the average time for a loan application by black farmers was 387 days.   That is more than 12 times longer if you are a black farmer.   This discrimination earned the USDA the regrettable nickname "the Last Plantation."

     Black farmers finally sought justice through a class action lawsuit in 1997.   More than 20,000 farmers initiated claims citing racial discrimination in the USDA farm loan programs.  

     Two years after the action was initiated, the US District Court for District of Columbia entered a consent decree approving a class action settlement to compensate these farmers for years of racial discrimination by the USDA.    Each farmer who could prove discrimination was entitled to damages.   Out of the initial 20,000 farmers, 15,000 were meritorious in the claims they brought.   As the legal process continued, additional farmers began to join the class action and file their own claims.   Approximately 80,000 farmers eventually brought claims.  

     Unfortunately, many of these farmers did not know about the class action suit, and by the time they learned of its existence, the filing deadline had passed.  

     In 2008, Congress -- recognizing the injustice of stopping 80% or more of the farmers who potentially suffered at the hand of discrimination by our government --decided to take action and created a new cause of action for farmers previously denied access to justice.  

     In the 2008 Farm Bill, with bipartisan support, Congress included $100 million for payments and debt relief as a down-payment to satisfy the claims filed by deserving claimants denied participation in the original settlement because of timeliness issues.  

     After years of litigation and negotiation between the Department of Justice, which represented the USDA, and lawyers for the farmers, a settlement was finally reached in February 2010. The Pigford II settlement agreement will provide $1.25 billion, which is contingent on appropriation by Congress, to African American farmers who can show they suffered racial discrimination in USDA farm loan programs.   Once the money is appropriated farmers can pursue their individual claims through the same non-judicial process used in the first case.   

     To address this funding need, President Obama included $1.15 billion in additional funding for his Fiscal Year 2010 and Fiscal Year 2011 budget.  

     Both chambers of Congress have worked to pass appropriations to fulfill the settlement agreement since February.   The House of Representatives has passed funding language for the Pigford case twice; once as part of the war supplemental and the other on a tax extenders bill.  

     I thank my colleagues for working together and reaching a settlement on this important issue.  We have provided our fellow Americans with redress for an injustice that occurred.