Washington American Indian landowners and black farmers who for years have waited for Washington to address their claims of government mistreatment won a hard-fought victory Tuesday as Congress cleared legislation to pay the groups $4.6 billion to settle a pair of historic class-action lawsuits.
The measure passed the House in a 256-152 vote and now goes to President Barack Obama, who promised during his campaign to work toward resolving the long-standing disputes and others involving the government’s past discrimination against minorities.
In a statement, Obama applauded the bill’s passage and said he would continue working to resolve other lingering complaints of historic discrimination, including from women and Hispanic farmers.
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont., and lead plaintiff in the Indian case, called it a “historic day in Indian country as well as in America’s history.”
“A monumental step has been taken to remove a stain on our national honor and create a better future for Indians as our government begins to make some amends for grave past injustices,” she said.
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 on Capitol Hill over costs until the Senate broke a stalemate earlier this month.
Although the Senate passed the measure without opposition, all but 16 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.
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said Democrats weren’t really paying for the bill as they claimed but were simply tapping unused funds in unrelated programs.
“When we approve new spending we should offset that by spending cuts,” Brady said.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, likened the black farmers program to “modern-day reparations” for African-Americans and argued along with Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., that the claims process is rife with fraud.
Democrats and at least one Republican supporter countered that the bill protects taxpayers while offering fair compensation for people who were mistreated.
“This is not about fraud. This is about justice for black farmers who were wronged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said John Boyd, who founded the National Black Farmers Association and has lobbied Congress on the issue for more than two decades.