Deadline ticks with no movement on black farmers’ settlement

Lawmakers from both chambers on Wednesday pressed the administration to help find funds to resolve black farmers’ longstanding discrimination claims against the Agriculture Department (USDA).

March 31 is the deadline the Obama administration and Congress set to fund a new $1.25 billion settlement, according to its agreed-upon terms. But a week away from the deadline, Capitol Hill has not moved on funding for the settlement.

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Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) made a public plea Wednesday to find the money to resolve the discrimination claims.

Lawmakers said the administration needs to step in so Congress can move forward on the appropriations request. Conyers and others said the administration has to designate the settlement funding as an emergency so Capitol Hill can waive pay-go rules and attach it to legislation.

“Do we need anything else?” Conyers asked the crowd gathered at the press conference.

The member then decided to take the matter into his own hands. After calling Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s office on an aide’s cell phone from the press conference, Conyers scored an impromptu meeting with the Cabinet official Wednesday.

 “Put Vilsack on speaker,” Conyers said as an aide brought over his cell phone while television cameras rolled.

Standing at the House Triangle podium with reporters watching, the powerful House Judiciary Committee chairman sorted out the particulars of when a meeting could take place. “You realize this is urgent,” he said on the phone.

Learning that the Agriculture secretary was on his way to the White House, Conyers said he could meet him there.

“I don’t want a phone conversation. I want to meet him in person,” Conyers said.

After hanging up, the Michigan Democrat said, “Jesus. Government employees.”

Aides to Conyers later confirmed that the lawmaker had scored his meeting with Vilsack. Conyers is expected to meet with the Cabinet secretary later Wednesday at his office in the Rayburn Building.

A USDA spokesman said Vilsack is actively looking for funding to resolve the claims.

“USDA is actively working with Congress to find the resources needed to fulfill the Pigford settlement agreement. In recent weeks, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has made personal phone calls and sent a letter in support of the president’s budget amendment, and he has urged Congress to appropriate the resources to resolve this important matter,” said the spokesman.

The settlement’s $1.25 billion consists of $100 million already appropriated in the 2008 Farm Bill as well as the administration’s 2011 budget request of $1.15 billion.

 President Barack Obama was vital in getting the $100 million for black farmers in the Farm Bill when he was Illinois’s junior senator.

The brash move by Conyers won approval from John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, who has lobbied for resolution of the discrimination claims for years.

“It’s good that he is calling him out on the rug,” Boyd said.

Despite only a few legislative days until the Easter recess, Boyd was confident that lawmakers could act if given the green light from the administration.

“They can attach this to the next moving train,” Boyd said. “It is very doable.”

There is a possibility the settlement’s deadline could be extended past March 31, giving Congress more time to find the necessary funding. But Boyd said black farmers cannot be asked to wait any longer and deferring compensation yet again would disrupt another planting season.

“I don’t want an extension. I want Congress to act,” Boyd said. “Honestly, I don’t want to go through that process.”