By Kevin Bogardus - 11/29/10 11:00 AM EST
The Senate’s approval of a $1.15 billion settlement for black farmers meant to deal with decades of past discrimination capped a roller-coaster year on the issue for Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE.
Vilsack was in the legislative trenches for much of this year pushing for the settlement’s passage, which still must be approved by the House. With a vote expected to come up next week, passage by the lower chamber seems likely since the House has approved the settlement already this year.
“It was a matter of making sure that we had mollified any concerns that senators may have had about that process. That took some time,” Vilsack said. “We had to work through all those concerns and objections.”
The settlement, known as Pigford II, will provide money to thousands of black farmers who were denied aid and benefits provided to white farmers by the Agriculture Department (USDA). Vilsack said finalizing the legislation was important for USDA to move on from past allegations of racism.
While shepherding the bill through Congress, Vilsack also had to deal with a race-related controversy of his own making.
Vilsack fired Shirley Sherrod, a USDA worker and original Pigford claimant, after a video clip surfaced in July that gave the appearance she had discriminated against a white farmer.
Later, the full video of Sherrod’s comments showed the incident had occurred before she worked at USDA, that she had not discriminated against anyone and that she had learned an important lesson about disregarding race. The wife of the farmer involved has said Sherrod saved her family’s farm.
Vilsack apologized for the firing, but said the difficult episode did not stall the resolution of Pigford II.
“We have been focused on trying to get this done before, during and after Shirley’s circumstance,” Vilsack said. “I have been working on this since the first day I have gotten into this job.”
Vilsack said he has “certainly made my peace with Shirley and Charles Sherrod. They have been very kind and understanding.”
Vilsack has taken a number of actions to make his department more sensitive to civil rights issues.
Under Vilsack, the department has hired a consulting firm to advise it on matters of diversity. He has often spoken about USDA needing to be free of discrimination so it could be free to do its job today. But most importantly to the secretary, he worked to finish the Pigford settlement.
“In order to have those efforts succeed, it was necessary to put the lawsuits, in a sense, behind us, which required us obviously to work hard and find the funding from Congress to settle the cases,” Vilsack said.
It wasn’t easy — there were several false starts before the affirmative Senate vote, and USDA had to ask Congress for more money for the settlement at a time when lawmakers are become increasingly wary of government spending.
Along the way, many senators had doubts about how discrimination claims by black farmers would be verified, saying they wanted to ensure that only deserving applicants would be paid under the settlement.
Vilsack said the department was able to assure senators on “how we would make sure that there were no claims or limited the number of claims that would be questionable that would be approved under this process.”
The settlement was reached between black farmers and the federal government in February 2010. It followed an original deal from 1999, necessitated by the fact that thousands of black farmers missed an initial filing deadline to receive compensation under the 1999 agreement.
Vilsack’s attention has now turned to the House. He pointed out that the lower chamber has voted for appropriations to resolve the discrimination claims earlier this year and that he hopes that support will remain the same when they move on the Senate bill.
“As many starts and stops and fits that we have had with this, I don’t take anything for granted. We need to work it. My hope is that it gets done quickly,” Vilsack said.