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Freshman Jackson offers bill to boost USDA civil rights efforts

Long-standing complaints about USDA by Black and other minority farmers

Rep. Jonathan L. Jackson, D-Ill., introduced a bill that would discipline Agriculture Department employees found to have engaged in discriminatory actions.
Rep. Jonathan L. Jackson, D-Ill., introduced a bill that would discipline Agriculture Department employees found to have engaged in discriminatory actions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Agriculture Department employees found to have engaged in discriminatory actions would be subject to discipline ranging from a letter of reprimand to dismissal under a bill filed Thursday by Rep. Jonathan L. Jackson, the son of civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson.

The bill by Jackson, D-Ill., a House Agriculture Committee member, would address a long-standing complaint by Black and other minority farmers that department and agency workers go unpunished even when the discrimination is documented. The bill was filed Nov. 30 and has seven co-sponsors.

Jackson said the Biden administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are making efforts to improve racial equity at USDA, but added that he decided his first bill in Congress should address the lingering effects. The department still faces mistrust among many Black farmers and ranchers and has a history of lawsuits by women, Latino and Native American growers over its lending practices.

“While USDA and Congress have made significant strides to right this wrong, a legacy of discrimination remains, and it shows up in the data,” Jackson said in a statement. 

The legislation would direct the USDA to “ensure that appropriate corrective action is taken” with officials or employees found to have engaged in “actions, violations or misconduct” involving discrimination, retaliation, harassment or civil rights violations by an Agriculture Department administrative finding, a federal administrative or judicial procedure, a settlement decision involving civil rights or an investigation by the department’s inspector general or the Office of the Special Counsel. 

Jackson’s bill also would tackle other areas identified by critics as structural weaknesses that have diminished the effectiveness of civil rights enforcement. 

The legislation would create an office of legal adviser on civil rights as the only departmental source of legal guidance to the civil rights assistant secretary, replacing the general counsel’s office as a source of legal advice. The legal adviser would report directly to the assistant secretary and would be barred from representing or defending the department or any USDA agencies in complaints alleging discrimination in department programs or in employment.

In 2021, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic in Massachusetts recommended that the Biden administration erect a firewall between the department’s general counsel and the civil rights office. The recommendation grew out of complaints that the general counsel through various administrations has focused more on defending the department against accusations rather than determining if discrimination occurred.

Jackson’s legislation also proposes to boost the power of  the civil rights assistant secretary by giving the post authority to provide relief to a farmer or rancher with a civil rights complaint involving a direct farm ownership, operating or emergency loan.

Only the Agriculture secretary could reverse a decision to provide relief.  

The assistant secretary would remain a position requiring a presidential nomination and confirmation by the Senate. The current nominee, University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger, has been nominated twice for the post but is in limbo because of Senate holds. Schlanger is now an adviser in the Office of Congressional Relations.

Jackson also proposes a new office of civil rights ombudsman with the top official to be appointed by the Agriculture secretary. The ombudsman would have a background in civil rights enforcement and be responsible for helping farmers and other USDA program participants through the civil rights review process. The ombudsman’s office would report to the House and Senate Agriculture committees on the civil rights office and findings and recommendations for equitable access or implementation of USDA programs. 

The legislation would give farmers and ranchers a stronger hand in challenging administrative decisions made by the USDA National Appeals Division by changing the burden-of-proof standard. The 1994 law that reorganized the department requires an appellant to prove that a decision against them is erroneous. The bill would put the onus on the appeals division to provide “substantial evidence” that an adverse decision is valid. 

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