CBC argues tough rules could prevent black farmers from winning claims

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are complaining that legislation funding a settlement for discrimination against black farmers sets too high a bar for claimants.

The lawmakers argue language added by the Senate, which is meant to prevent fraud in the program, sets higher standards for proving a claim than were required for other groups trying to prove loan discrimination by the Department of Agriculture.

“There's no question. The bar is much higher,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a CBC member and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

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The legislation to be sent to the president would provide $4.55 billion to settle longstanding discrimination claims with the Department of Agriculture from black and Native American farmers.

The additional steps added to the claims process include an audit by an inspector general and oversight by the attorney general's office, as well as a review by the secretary of Agriculture, who must sign off on a farmer’s claim.

Attorneys involved in cases must swear in writing that the claims are legitimate, and a special federal “adjudicator” must also take an oath that the claim is legitimate and may request additional information and documentation. At the end of the process is another round of oversight and review from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice at the top levels.

Thompson argues the additional standards are unfair, and that black farmers are being treated differently from other groups.

“Even when black people are about to receive a settlement, just because they raised the issue they are being treated differently. There should be a uniform standard for everybody,” Thompson added.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), another CBC member, agrees with Thompson and said fewer deserving people could get help because of the standards.

“I have concerns with language added in the Senate that could have a chilling effect on farmers settling claims,” he said in a statement about the bill. “I hope the unprecedented processes laid out in this bill do not become tools for witch hunts and intimidation.”

The legislation follows a 1999 ruling by a federal judge approving a settlement agreement in the class-action lawsuit filed by black farmers alleging that USDA discriminated against them in their applications for loans and other assistance. The judge ruled in the settlement that if claimants farmed between 1981 and 1996, and had filed a complaint of discrimination by July 1, 1997, they were eligible for compensation.

Thousands of farmers failed to file complaints by the July 1997 cutoff, however. Congress then authorized a cause of action for the late filers known as Pigford II. Those looking to win claims under Pigford II must meet the higher standard.

Another CBC member, Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeBlack Caucus meets with White House over treatment of Haitian migrants Angelina Jolie spotted in Capitol meeting with senators Elon Musk after Texas Gov. Abbott invokes him: 'I would prefer to stay out of politics' MORE (D-Texas), said lawmakers might look for administrative help if it becomes too difficult for claimants to win relief.

“If the bar becomes overly difficult, we're going to look for administrative relief so that people who are truly in need are not overcome,” said Jackson Lee, who has found meetings with black farmers in Texas “emotionally draining.”

The new standards for the Pigford claimants were added by the Senate after several attempts to move the legislation failed. The additional requirements were meant to meet concerns about fraud that were raised most notably by Reps. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE (R-Minn.) and Steve King (R-Iowa).

“We need to have an investigation of every single claim going out,” Bachmann said in an interview. “This is $50,000 of the taxpayers' money to every single claimant.

“What we have heard from whistleblowers is that there are people in urban areas living in highrises getting $50,000 who have never been on a farm and have never lived on a farm,” Bachmann said.

But Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnBiden and AOC's reckless spending plans are a threat to the planet NSF funding choice: Move forward or fall behind DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office MORE (R-Okla.), who had opposed earlier versions of the legislation, said he was satisfied with the new requirements.

“I'm very happy with it; I think they fixed all my concerns; that's why I let it go,” said Coburn.

Coburn said there will still be some cases of fraud.

“There's fraud in everything the government does,” he said. “There's just not gonna be as much fraud.”

Other Republicans also said they were satisfied with the stronger standards.

“The bar was pretty low to start with in the first classes of Pigford claims, and it has been raised and it should be,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said.

He said requirements added to the bill on the demands of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) “hopefully ensure there won't be any fraud under the settlement at the end of the day.”