Five days a week, for two hours each day, eight workmen come walking out of the bowels of the U.S. Capitol. They're carrying several dozen American flags.

They quickly raise and quickly lower the flags, which are then turned over to Senators and Congressmen, who sell them to constituents at cost. Presumably, the constituents are delighted for ever more at having a flag that actually flew over the Capitol.

But they might not be so delighted if they'd come along for the ride with Robert J. Wood of Alexandria.

Bob wanted to order a flew-over-the-Capitol flag for his grandson. But being a retired sergeant major in the U.S. Army, he knew better than to bite at the first offer that fluttered in front of his face. He did a little research on the prices of Capitol flags. This is what he found:

A 3-by-5 cotton flag costs $7.62 if you order it through a Congressman. But the same flag costs only $7.50 if you order it through a Senator.

A 3-by-5 nylon flag costs $6.78 in the House, and $6.90 in the Senate.

A 5-by-8 cotton flag goes for $16.05 House and $15.50 Senate.

And a 5-by-8 nylon flag will run you $16.70 House and $16.10 Senate.

Bob declared himself "a bit amused" by the price discrepancies. He wondered if I could puzzle out an explanation.

Here it is, Sergeant Bob: It boils down to the definition of a fiscal year.

The Senate buys supplies on July 1, the beginning of its fiscal year. The House buys them on October 1, the beginning of its. The price differences you see above reflect the best deals the respective chambers could make for flags on the day they each had to purchase them.

Why not order all the flags at once? "It is really a logistical thing," explained Dave Marcos, keeper of the Senate Stationery. "If we did it together we would have to split the contract. That wouldn't work too smoothly." What Dave didn't add is that ordering flags in one batch would take cooperation between the two bodies. Let's just say that doesn't grow in abundance.

So caveat emptor, flag-seekers. As Bob Wood showed, it pays to shop around, even atop the Hill.