House clears Indian, black farmer settlements

By Ben Evans
Washington (AP) December 2010

The House of Representatives passed landmark legislation last week to pay for some $4.6 billion in settlements with American Indians and black farmers who say they faced discrimination and mistreatment from the government.

Lawmakers voted 256-152 to send the measure to President Barack Obama, whose administration brokered the settlements over the past year.

The package would award some $3.4 billion to American Indians over claims they were cheated out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department for resources like oil, gas and timber. Another $1.2 billion would go to African-Americans who claim they were unfairly denied loans and other assistance from the Agriculture Department.

The settlements have broad bipartisan support but had stalled in Congress over costs until the Senate broke a stalemate this month.

Although the Senate passed it without opposition, most Republicans opposed it in the House. Many argued the individual settlements have merit but objected to lumping them together in a single bill with other provisions, including deals on four long-standing disputes over Indian water rights.

As debate opened last week, Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx said the individual settlements may have merit, but lumping them together in a costly bill does not 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.