by Nancy Scola, Thu Oct 25, 2007 at 01:51:03 PM EDT
There's a little-noticed detail to the ongoing farm bill debate that I thought might be of some interest in the context of the presidential primary process. It has to do with Barack Obama and a uncollected restitution payments owed to many black farmers.
The deal is this. Pigford v. Glickman alleged that black farmers had faced institutional and systematic discrimination at the hands of the USDA for years and years, generation after generation. (Dan Glickman was the USDA Secretary at the time the case was filed.) In case after case, black farmers where denied loans and other lines of credit that their white counterparts were regularly granted. After years of wrangling, Pigford was finally settled in 1999 by consent decree. The USDA agreed to a process by which black farmers could apply for restitution.
All well and good, but those applications were due within six months of the settlement. It's been estimated that as many as 74,000 farmers applied for Pigford payments after the deadline. They were shut out of the settlement for good, it seemed.
And so, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been pushing for Congress to intervene and offer some relief to the farmers who were eligible for Pigford payment but somehow missed the boat. More recently, Barack Obama has gotten in front of the issue. He's co-sponsored legislation championed by the CBC in the House, with the goal of getting in passed as part of the massive Farm Bill. And he's been fairly aggressive against some inappropriate lobbying against the Pigford language by USDA employees. (The USDA is unhappy with the many millions of dollars further restitution might cost.)
In addition to the policy imperative behind Pigford language in the farm bill, it's not bad politics for Obama. Restitution is a very big deal in the rural South -- you know, places like South Carolina, Florida, and the like. It has been for many years, and the flavor of the fight for Pigford compensation is similar to other civil rights fights.
The Senate just finished marking up the farm bill. No word yet on whether Pigford language has survived the sausage making process so far. If it makes it all the way into law, and his campaign sees the political value in it, Pigford may give Obama a healthy boost in some important early states.