OMAHA, Neb. — Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann pointed to one program in particular Monday when talking about wasteful government spending: a multibillion dollar settlement paid to black farmers, who claim the federal government discriminated against them for decades in awarding loans and other aid.
The issue came up after Bachmann and Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa toured flooded areas along the Missouri River. During a news conference, they fielded a question about whether farmers affected by the flooding also should be worried by proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture cuts.
The two responded by criticizing a 1999 settlement in what is known as the Pigford case, after the original plaintiff, North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford. Late last year, President Barack Obama signed legislation authorizing a new, nearly $1.2 billion settlement for people who were denied payments in the earlier one because they missed deadlines for filing.
King has likened the Pigford settlement to "modern-day reparations" for African-Americans. He said Monday a large percentage of the settlement "was just paid out in fraudulent claims" and criticized the Obama administration's plan to resolve separate lawsuits filed by Hispanic and female farmers.
"That's another at least $1.3 billion," King said "I'd like to apply that money to the people that are under water right now."
Bachmann seconded King's criticism, saying, "When money is diverted to inefficient projects, like the Pigford project, where there seems to be proof-positive of fraud, we can't afford $2 billion in potentially fraudulent claims when that money can be used to benefit the people along the Mississippi River and the Missouri River."
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, which represented black farmers in the Pigford settlement, called the criticism unfair.
"Why continue to take from those people who haven't taken part in federal programs equally and give to another group of farmers who have taken part in federal programs?" Boyd asked. "I think taking resources from a group of people who have been historically denied any relief at the Department of Agriculture is a bad idea. For the flood victims that deserve redress ... they should provide those people with relief, too."
Boyd said he and others worked to put anti-fraud provisions in the legislation signed last year. They require each claim of discrimination to be judged individually to determine its merit – a process that Boyd said has not yet even begun.
"We worked with Republicans ... to get those issues addressed," he said. "Even after we got them addressed, Ms. Bachmann and Mr. King have continued to look at black farmers in a very negative way.
"I think it's bad for the American people. I think if Ms. Bachmann wants to be president of the United States, she should treat all people fairly."
Bachmann's criticism wasn't limited to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Minnesota congresswoman also took a swipe at the president, who has not visited areas of Iowa, Nebraska or other states flooded by the river.
"The devastation is beyond what people can imagine," Bachmann said. "Surely this is worthy of a presidential visit to come see this level of devastation in western Iowa."
Heavy rain and a large snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains have poured water into the Missouri, flooding more than 500,000 acres in seven states. The high water is expected to linger through August, putting pressure on levees that protect homes, cities and farms.
"This flood that we have seems to have disappeared from the minds of people from across the country," King said. "If you're not here to see it ... you don't hear very much about it."