Thursday, December 2, 2010

Senator Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches # 1225

  “Hank, the black farmers appropriation passed the U. S. Senate. Isn’t that wonderful? I am celebrating!” Those words burst forth over the phone from Heather Gray of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. It was indeed a moment worth celebrating. I celebrated as well.

  The appropriation had passed the U. S. House of Representatives many months ago. The U. S. Senate had tried to pass it five or six times to no avail. This was the last real opportunity. So much had happened. As the old folks say, “If it was not one thing, it was another.”

  Republicans had held up the appropriation all these months. When they were finally satisfied, then a Democratic senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, began holding up the appropriation bill. I, along with many others, had spent the previous week helping to remove the last legislative obstacles. Heather had been on it like a duck on a June bug.  It seemed that every time one problem was solved, something else sprung up. If it was not one thing, it was another.

  Let’s provide a little more background so you can put this celebratory moment in perspective. This particular black farmer litigation started in the 1990s. The United States Department of Agriculture had been discriminating against black farmers for many years, driving most out of business. In 1981, the Reagan Administration even wiped out all procedures by which farmers could complain about discrimination. In 1998, a lawsuit was filed with Attorney J. L. Chestnut, Jr. helping lead the effort. The applicable statute of limitation was two years so anything that happened before 1996 could not be considered.

  We worked to get Congress to pass a law in 1999 extending the statute of limitations back to 1981 when all procedures to complain were extinguished. To accomplish this goal, plaintiffs’ attorneys gave up all attorney’s fee claims to a percentage of the black farmers recovery for attorney fees. We were supposed to get attorney fees from the government but that was more than a notion. We did this not knowing this litigation would virtually bankrupt our law firm.

  Nearly 15,000 black farmers received $50,000 each plus $12,500 for federal taxes. There were other benefits as well. Over a billion dollars was paid. However, many black farmers and/or blacks who had attempted to farm were left out because they failed to file a claim form before the 1999 deadline. Some 22,000 met the deadline but some 70,000 missed it. That brought about a continuing struggle for justice.

  In 2008, Congress authorized $100 million to include the left out. Another lawsuit was immediately filed. Over 30 different law firms joined together to fight the battle. We estimated that it would take $2.5 billion to pay the claims. Eventually an appropriation of $1.15 billion, about half of the amount needed with the $100 million already appropriated, was proposed by USDA and sent to Congress. Even that comprised sum had all kinds of trouble. If it was not one thing, it was another.

  The $1.15 billion was just one item in the appropriation bill. A $3.5 billion sum to settle a Native American discrimination lawsuit was included. And there were lots of other appropriations as well. These items complicated passage since the only way the appropriation bill could pass the Senate was by unanimous consent. There could not be even one dissenting vote. If it was not one thing, it was another.

  For a period of time, Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma held up the entire appropriation. He had a problem with something in the Native American settlement. Eventually, he was satisfied but that did not solve the situation. Then Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona had a problem. Basically, he wanted tens of millions of dollars for water projects in his home state. If it was not one thing, it was another.

  During all these struggles, we had an election. The U. S. House of Representatives went from a 75 member Democratic majority to a 50 member Republican majority. Since newly elected Congresspersons will not take office until January, the current Congress continued meeting after the election to handle unfinished legislation. It’s called ‘a lame duck session.’ If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

  Of course, we are still not out of the legislative woods with Senate passage of the appropriation bill. The U. S. House of Representatives must still re-pass the Senate version. We hope that will not be a problem but you never know. Already some African American Congresspersons are concerned. First, the Senate included all kinds of anti-fraud provisions that were not included in the Native American appropriation. They see that as discrimination. Second, they took money from a program for new mothers called WIC to cover the costs. That’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. Then Congresspersons Michelle Bachman and Steve King are raising questions. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

  If this matter is not successful in this session, the entire appropriation will have to start all over again. Many of us believe that if we have to start over again, both black farmers and Native Americans will be left hanging. I tell you, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

EPILOGUE – We see things and think they are unfair.  We think they are easy to correct.  We try to correct the injustice but one thing leads to another and another.  Sometimes other injustices occur in the process.  If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents the 23rd Senate District in Alabama.

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