Senate figures out how to improve service

The US Senate votes to privatize its restaurants:

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.

The embarrassment of the Senate food service struggling like some neighborhood pizza joint has quietly sparked change previously unthinkable for Democrats. Last week, in a late-night voice vote, the Senate agreed to privatize the operation of its food service, a decision that would, for the first time, put it under the control of a contractor and all but guarantee lower wages and benefits for the outfit’s new hires.

The House is expected to agree — its food service operation has been in private hands since the 1980s — and President Bush’s signature on the bill would officially end a seven-month Democratic feud and more than four decades of taxpayer bailouts. . .

All told, [the Senate Restaurants] bring in more than $10 million a year in food sales but have turned a profit in just seven of their 44 years in business, according to the GAO.

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.

House staffers almost never cross the Capitol to eat in the Senate cafeterias.

It’s a perfect little tale of private versus government management:

In the past 10 years, only 20 new items have been added to the Senate menus. So rare are new entrees that last year’s arrival of daily fresh-made sushi was treated in some senatorial quarters as if a new Nobu had opened in the Capitol dining room.

Even revenue in the once-profitable catering division has been decimated, as senators have increasingly sought waivers to bring in outside food for special events with constituents and private groups.

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.

This makes good sense, and it’s surprising to see a Democratic Senate agree to do it.  They’re own interests were at stake, though, so maybe it’s not so surprising.  Since they used a voice vote, there’s no way of knowing how individual Senators voted.

Meanwhile, talk of nationalizing health care proceeds apace.

POSTSCRIPT: It would be been even smarter if they had hired a different contractor than the House, to introduce some competition, but I guess there’s a limit to how much free enterprise Senators can tolerate just to get good meals.

(Via the Corner.)

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