Congress Poised to Pass Indian, Black Farmer Deals

By Ben Evans | November 30, 2010 | 4:11 PM EST

Washington (AP) - Would-be farmer Carl Eggleston has been waiting nearly a decade to refile his claim against the government for the discrimination he says he faced when he tried to start a hog farm on his Virginia property.

The African-American from Farmville said his application for a government loan was never even processed, and he ultimately turned to other work. Eggleston, 60, said he worked at a furniture store and a shoe company before eventually moving into the funeral home business, where he works today.

"I could never get it off the ground," he said of his venture to expand on the handful of hogs his father raised.

Eggleston is among thousands of African-Americans and American Indians who stand to gain if Congress wraps up a landmark bill this week resolving two major class-action lawsuits against the government. A House vote expected as early as Tuesday would complete congressional action and send the measure to President Barack Obama, whose administration brokered settlements over the past year.

The package would award some $1.2 billion to African-Americans who claim they tried to farm in recent decades but were denied loans and other assistance from the Agriculture Department. Another $3.4 billion would go to American Indians who have battled in court for nearly 15 years over claims they were cheated out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department for resources like oil, gas and timber.

The settlements have broad bipartisan support but had stalled on Capitol Hill over costs until the Senate broke a stalemate earlier this month, approving the legislation without opposition. Similar versions have easily cleared the House, and it is expected to pass again despite criticism from some Republicans.

As debate opened Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Va., said the individual settlements may have merit but that lumping them together in a costly bill doesn't serve taxpayers well.

"Inasmuch as people have been discriminated against in the past, we object to that, we abhor it," Foxx said. But she said the bill totals some 270 pages and would cost nearly $6 billion, including nearly $1 billion to resolve several additional lawsuits over Indian water rights.

Other Republicans such as Steve King of Iowa and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota have argued the black farmers program is rife with fraud.

Democrats countered that the bill includes safeguards to protect taxpayers while offering fair compensation for people who were mistreated.

"We just can't have this kind of discrimination going on in this country. America needs to pay its debts," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.

In the Indian case, at least 300,000 Native Americans claim they were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. The plaintiffs originally said they were owed $100 billion, but signaled they were willing to settle for less as the case dragged on.

The case is known as Cobell after its lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont.

For the black farmers, it is the second round of funding from a class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999 over allegations of widespread discrimination by local USDA offices.

The government already has paid out more than $1 billion to about 16,000 farmers, with most getting payments of about $50,000. The new money is intended for people such as Eggleston who were denied earlier payments because they missed deadlines for filing. Tens of thousands of new claims are expected, and the amount of money each would get depends on how many are successful.

The case is known as Pigford after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was an original plaintiff.