Financial losses from always-available meals in the Senate members' dining room in the Capitol and half-price television spots produced by the House Recording Studio for its members, two of the many subsidized perks on the Hill, are diplomatically disclosed in new audits released by Congress's watchdog, the General Accounting Office.
The modestly elegant Senate dining room, conveniently located just below the Senate floor, and two other adjacent dining rooms in the Capitol used by the press and the public, lost $488,865 on sales of $1.4 million in the year ending Sept. 30, 1989. The information is buried in a table under a note regarding GAO's financial statement on the operations of all the Senate restaurants during the same period.
The losses for the Capitol restaurants result from the practice of keeping these dining rooms open and staffed whenever the Senate is meeting, according to a Capitol Hill aide. When the senators have late night or all-night sessions, the rooms are kept open in case one, two or a dozen senators or members of the press want to eat, the source said.
An even bigger proportionate loss is generated by the senators' dining room in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. That facility, which serves only one meal -- lunch -- each day, lost $51,555 on sales of $73,779 in fiscal 1989, the GAO said.
On the other side of the Capitol, the GAO found that prices charged members for using the House Recording Studio to make television and radio programs and still photographs to send constituents covered only 26 percent of the studio's costs. As a result, the House studio lost $1,337,172 in fiscal 1989, almost $300,000 higher than the loss of $1,051,326 for the prior year.
That financial loss isn't immediately clear in the GAO audit, since its focus is the studio's revolving fund, which reported a gain of $85,369 for fiscal 1989, up from a smaller gain of $20,651 the year before.
This bit of fiscal legerdemain -- showing an increasing gain when there really is a growing loss -- is accomplished by leaving out of the revolving fund's costs for producing spots for members what the GAO calls "identifiable studio operating costs paid from appropriated funds."
That growing cost figure is carried in a table in a note entitled "other operating costs" to the GAO financial statement on the fund's operations.
House members benefit from this type of bookkeeping. They pay money from their official expense accounts to the revolving fund for the services provided by the House Recording Studio. The prices charged them for their television and radio spots, and their photographs, would be probably twice as high if they had had to cover the $1.4 million from appropriated funds not now included in revolving fund costs.
One fiscal 1989 expenditure of $200,000 of appropriated funds was used to renovate the House studios and accounted for a major part of the increase in costs from 1988. But as use of the studios increased this election year, the House Administration Committee considered and delayed paying out another $230,000 in appropriated funds for additional personnel to send out satellite feeds for West Coast members.
By juggling the House Recording Studio costs, the members can claim the "income" generated by the operation pays for the purchase of equipment.
The same game of hiding relevant costs is played with many of the perks of Congress, including the Senate restaurants.
Its revolving fund shows that the Senate's cafeterias, coffee shops, snack bars and fast-food shops in the Capitol and Senate office buildings -- other than the senators' dining rooms -- made a combined profit of $451,882 last year. When the deficits for the senators' dining rooms are added in, the overall loss was $88,538.
The fiscal 1988 loss was $177,055, according to the GAO, indicating things were getting better last year.
However, another footnote discloses that in fiscal 1989 there were $1.3 million in "costs paid with appropriated funds" supporting the Senate restaurants -- money paid to restaurant management personnel from the budget of the Architect of the Capitol. The note adds that other expenses such as space for the restaurants, building repairs and maintenance, utilities, garbage disposal and printing of menus by the Government Printing Office were not even included in costs attributed to appropriated funds.
Adding just the attributable appropriated funds, which were $130,000 higher in fiscal 1989 than fiscal 1988, the true deficit for the Senate restaurants last year would have grown rather than diminished from the prior year.
If all these costs were accountable and tabulated, the Senate restaurant deficit would be nearly $2 million, and prices, which have been raised several times, would probably have to go up again.