Senate Privatizes Lunch

Senate Privatizes Lunch June 14, 2008

Their own, that is:

Year after year, decade upon decade, the U.S. Senate’s network of restaurants has lost staggering amounts of money — more than $18 million since 1993, according to one report, and an estimated $2 million this year alone, according to another.

The financial condition of the world’s most exclusive dining hall and its affiliated Capitol Hill restaurants, cafeterias and coffee shops has become so dire that, without a $250,000 subsidy from taxpayers, the Senate won’t make payroll next month.

In a masterful bit of understatement, Feinstein blamed “noticeably subpar” food and service. Foot traffic bears that out. Come lunchtime, many Senate staffers trudge across the Capitol and down into the basement cafeteria on the House side. On Wednesdays, the lines can be 30 or 40 people long.

Operation of the House cafeterias was privatized in the 1980s by a Democratic-controlled Congress. Restaurant Associates of New York, the current House contractor, would take over the Senate facilities this fall. The company wins high praise from most staffers and lawmakers, who say they are pleased with the wide variety of new items offered every few months.

Most important to Feinstein, Restaurant Associates turns a substantial profit — paying $1.2 million in commissions to the House since 2003. Company officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The rules committee began exploring its outsourcing options in 2005, when Republicans controlled the chamber. When Democrats took power last year, Feinstein ordered several studies, including hiring a consultant to examine management practices, before deciding privatization was the only possibility.

In a closed-door meeting with Democrats in November, she was practically heckled by her peers for suggesting it, senators and aides said.

“I know what happens with privatization. Workers lose jobs, and the next generation of workers make less in wages. These are some of the lowest-paid workers in our country, and I want to help them,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch labor union ally, said recently. The wages of the approximately 100 Senate food service workers average $37,000 annually.

Feinstein made another presentation May 7, warning senators that if they did not agree to turn over the operation to a private contractor, prices would be increased 25 percent across the board.

Eventually, Democrats agreed to pass legislation that includes guarantees for those who go to work for Restaurant Associates. They would retain their current salaries and federal health and pension benefits. Employees who choose to leave instead would receive buyout packages of as much as $25,000 — paid by the Senate. Half the current employees are likely to take that deal.

More. (HT: Marginal Revolution) Fortunately, there are no lessons to be drawn from this story about any other political economic issue whatsoever.

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  • Chase

    My (anecdotal) experience suggests that Senate staffers marching over to the House side is actually pretty rare – its a long walk. Staffers either bring their own lunch or do traffic Senate cafeterias. Anyone complaining about Senate food is, quite frankly, whining.

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