Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said this week that congressional leaders are making progress on the $286 billion dollar measure authorizing scores of government programs over the next five years. But the Iowa democrat didn't rule out extending current law beyond the March 15 deadline.
Even then, the legislation faces an uncertain future, since President Bush has threatened to veto both the House and Senate versions saying they are too expensive and pay too many subsidies to wealthy farmers.
Meanwhile, the federal agency charged with administrating farm policy has its own problems. The Agriculture Department's long list of civil rights issues received more attention this past week. USDA officials banned auditors from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, or GAO, from USDA's Office of Civil Rights.
The Government Accountability Office, known as the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, released this statement to Market to Market:
"In the vast majority of our audit cases, the GAO gets cooperation. In those instances where we encounter certain difficulties, we consider an array of options available to us in determining how to proceed…GAO plans to continue its audit work, which should be completed about mid-July."
U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley, Tom Harkin, and Richard Lugar urged GAO investigators to examine racial discrimination allegations against the USDA Civil Rights Office. The bi-partisan team of farm-state lawmakers called the USDA decision to remove inspectors "unjustified" and issued this release:
"Given USDA's documented history of civil rights abuses, one of which led to a consent decree that, to date, has paid out nearly one billion dollars in settlements to black farmers, USDA's unwillingness to provide documentation to GAO raises very serious questions whether the Department is serious about stopping civil rights abuses."
The concerns of high-ranking lawmakers such as Harkin, Grassley, and Lugar come as the 2007 farm bill is nearing completion on Capitol Hill and may include language pertaining to black farmers. Allegations of discrimination have plagued USDA for much of the last quarter-century. After the landmark legal decision of Pickford vs. Glickman in 1999, many black farmers were awarded financial damages but multiple complaints claim thousands of farmers were unfairly turned away.
John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association, contends that language in the new farm bill could allow thousands of black farmers an opportunity to reapply for financial damages.