You can still get a taxpayer-subsidized haircut at the Senate barbershop, but manicures are out


The Senate barbershop circa 1937 (Library of Congress)

Good news, taxpayers: federal spending on the Senate's barbershop has decreased more than 50 percent in the past three years. Also, the Senate has a barbershop.

Wait, what?

Let's back up for a second. The Sunlight Foundation recently did government watchers a huge service by digitizing three years' worth of Senate expense reports that previously only existed as a mountain of PDF files. For the first time ever, it's relatively easy to see which Senate offices are spending the most money on things like transportation and per-diems.

According to an analysis by The Fix's indispensable Philip Bump, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Marco Rubio burned through the most cash in the past year.

The data also show spending spending for things like the Daniel Webster Senate Page Residence, the child-care center, and the Senate Photo Studio. Also, spending on "Senate Hair Care Services," aka the Senate hair salon.

senate_hair

The Senate barbershop has existed in some form or other since the 19th century, the New York Times reported last year. It is actually open to the public - Foursquare reports 151 check-ins by 46 visitors. Two recommend asking for "Meena" if you go. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be listed on Yelp.

In addition to barbers and hair stylists, in recent years the salon was also home to a full-time manicurist and a shoe shine specialist. But the salon has also been a long-time money loser, leading to repeated calls for privatization. The House of Representatives used to have a taxpayer-subsidized barbershop too, but it went private in 1994 (thanks, Newt).

The data from the Sunlight Foundation show why the Senate shop is constantly in the red - as federal employees, some of the stylists have been paid salaries upwards of $70,000 in recent years. This doesn't even account for health benefits or pensions. According to salary.com, the median D.C.  hair stylist makes $27,010 annually, while the top 10 percent of stylists in the region make $38,770. So the federal barbers are enjoying a substantial wage premium.

But all that is changing. Sequestration provided the necessary political cover to begin privatization of the barbershop in earnest. In 2013, the Senate Sargeant-at-Arms told the New York Times that he offered buyouts to the staff, roughly half of whom accepted. According the the Sunlight data, taxpayers stopped subsidizing manicure services in early 2013. Shoe shines went the same way later that year.

A number of barbers and stylists remain on the federal payroll, although spending dropped precipitously in the six-month period ending in March 2014, according to Sunlight. At $137,000, semi-annual spending on the barbershop now stands at less than half of 2011 spending levels.

I confess to conflicted feelings about all this. Like the White House bowling alley, the Senate barbershop adds a touch of humanity and charm to an institution otherwise lacking in those qualities. On the other hand, taxpayer-funded haircuts for lawmakers at a time when we can't/won't pay for things like long-term unemployment benefits? Come on.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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