Senate Votes To Privatize Its Failing Restaurants

The Senate Dining Room is the most upscale of the chamber's restaurants. The food service is losing money, and many prefer to eat on the House side.
The Senate Dining Room is the most upscale of the chamber's restaurants. The food service is losing money, and many prefer to eat on the House side. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008

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.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Rules and Administrations Committee, which oversees the operation of the Senate, said she had no choice.

"It's cratering," she said of the restaurant system. "Candidly, I don't think the taxpayers should be subsidizing something that doesn't need to be. There are parts of government that can be run like a business and should be run like businesses."

In a letter to colleagues, Feinstein said that the Government Accountability Office found that "financially breaking even has not been the objective of the current management due to an expectation that the restaurants will operate at a deficit annually."

But Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), speaking for the group of senators who opposed privatizing the restaurants, said that "you cannot stand on the Senate floor and condemn the privatization of workers, and then turn around and privatize the workers here in the Senate and leave them out on their own."

The Senate Restaurants, as the food service network is known, has a range of offerings, from the ornate Senate Dining Room on the first floor of the Capitol, where senators and their guests are served by staffers wearing jackets and ties, to the huge cafeteria in the Dirksen Building and various coffee shops throughout the Senate complex.

All told, they 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.


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