On November 30th, the House passed the Senate amendments to H.R. 4783, Claims Resolution Act. This legislation provides long-delayed justice for tens of thousands of black farmers and hundreds of thousands of American Indians. Among its provisions, the bill contains funding to implement the settlements of the Pigford class action lawsuit involving past discrimination against black farmers by the Agriculture Department and the Cobell class action lawsuit involving funds for American Indians mismanaged by the Interior Department. The funding to implement the Pigford settlement is estimated to be $1.15 billion and to implement the Cobell settlement $3.41 billion and is fully paid for.
The House has passed funding for the Pigford and Cobell settlements twice earlier this year - first in passing the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act and then in adopting an amendment to the FY 2010 Supplemental - but the language was blocked by Republicans in the Senate. The Senate finally passed this historic legislation on November 19 by unanimous consent. Passage of this legislation by the House sends the bill to the President's desk for his signature.
Pigford Class Action Lawsuit Settlement
In 1999, a federal judge approved a settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit (Pigford v Glickman) filed by African American farmers alleging that the Agriculture Department discriminated against black farmers who applied for loans or other assistance. Under that settlement, black farmers who farmed between 1981 and 1996 and who filed a complaint against the department by July 1, 1997, were eligible to seek monetary compensation from the government. The settlement, however, was widely criticized because tens of thousands of African American farmers who filed claims later than the July 1997 cutoff date were denied inclusion in the class to be eligible for compensation.
To provide some relief to those left out of the original action, in Section 14012 of the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress authorized a cause of action for late-filing claimants who were denied a “determination on the merits” of their discrimination claims in the original 1999 Pigford case. Congress also appropriated an initial amount of $100 million in the Farm Bill to be used for payments and debt relief awarded pursuant to those actions, with the understanding that the appropriation only served as a down payment for the claims process.
On February 18 of this year, the Secretary of Agriculture announced that the USDA had reached a settlement with the remaining Pigford claimants on the actions brought based on the provision passed in the 2008 Farm Bill. That settlement, however, was predicated on the appropriation of $1.15 billion by Congress to pay the claims and costs.
This bill now provides this $1.15 billion to fund the resolution of the longstanding Pigford case. The settlement allows for payments to settle discrimination claims by African American farmers under the settlement with the Agriculture Department that have been previously rejected on procedural grounds - i.e., that the claim was filed after the cutoff date of July 1, 1997.
Cobell Class Action Lawsuit Settlement
The measure approves and provides funding for the settlement of a long-running class action lawsuit (Cobell v. Salazar) that alleges that the Interior Department mismanaged billions of dollars in grazing land, gas, oil and other royalties owed to hundreds of thousands of American Indians.
The dispute over the royalties stems from an 1887 law that distributed parcels of land to individual American Indians but did not allow them to control how the land was used. Instead, the properties were placed into trust accounts. In a lawsuit, the lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, contended that the account holders were cheated out of their share of the revenue the government received for leasing the land.
The Interior and Justice Departments announced the settlement of the case on December 8, 2009. Under the settlement agreement, a $1.4 billion fund will be used to pay approximately 500,000 plaintiffs, and $2 billion will be used to consolidate land holdings where the presence of multiple heirs has complicated the management of accounts. A portion of the consolidation funding, up to $60 million, will be used to provide scholarships to Native American students.
American Indian Water Rights Agreements
The legislation approves four water rights agreements with American Indian tribes that will provide the tribes with funding to rehabilitate and build new reservoir, irrigation and water distribution systems. The House previously passed legislation approving three of the four agreements. The four water rights agreements are: the White Mountain Apache Tribe agreement, the Taos Pueblo agreement, the Crow Nation agreement, and the Aamodt Litigation Settlement agreement. The bill also provides funding for the Reclamation Water Settlements Fund. The total cost of these provisions is approximately $830 million.
One-Year Extension of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
The legislation extends funding through FY 2011, at the FY 2010 levels, for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The bill also extends, for six months, a supplemental TANF grant program for states with high population growth or historically below-average welfare grants.
The measure does not revive a TANF Emergency Jobs program, passed as part of the Recovery Act (PL 111-5), that enabled states to place adults with private employers and youths in summer jobs programs. That funding expired at the end of September after Republicans blocked attempts to extend it.
The bill's cost of $5.4 billion is fully paid for. Following is an overview of the bill's offsets:
- Unemployment Insurance Reform/TANF Extension. The provisions include anti-fraud measures that reduce the number of overpayments of UI benefits by allowing the Treasury Department to offset tax refunds by the amount of UI overpayments to the individual. TANF and related programs are extended with minor technical changes and a new one-time data collection provision. Together, these provisions will produce savings of $2.699 billion.
- Customs User Fees and Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act. The bill extends customs user fees through September 30, 2019. It also terminates any additional payments collected under the 2000 Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act provision prior to October 1, 2007, that have not been liquidated. Together, these provisions will produce savings of $2.135 billion.
- Agriculture Department Surplus. The bill rescinds $562 million in surplus funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The Agriculture Department indicates that, because carryover balances in WIC from FY 2010 to FY 2011 are roughly $900 million, this rescission is not expected to have a negative impact on the program. This provision will produce savings of $562 million.