Al Gore claims that "good enough for government work" once implied that such work met the highest standards of excellence. Maybe. But in the U.S. Senate's kitchens, "good enough for government work" means any meal that doesn't require a stomach pump.
The first time I was invited to the Senate for lunch, I was jazzed to sup in the corridors of power. By the time I got my meal, which seemed to have sat under a heat lamp since LBJ was running the place, I felt more like Robert Redford in the 1980 film "Brubaker," when the new warden, pretending to be an inmate, eats in the prison dining hall, where the food often moves on its own.
As befits a government-run commissary, the Senate cafeteria has a decidedly Soviet attitude toward variety. It has averaged only two new menu items a year over the last decade. The food is so bad, every lunch hour Senate staffers rush to the House side of the Capitol like starving New Yorkers of the future storming the last Soylent Green vendor.
According to auditors, the chain of restaurants run by the Senate food service, including the snooty Senate Dining Room, has almost never been in the black. It's lost more than $18 million since 1993 and has dropped about $2 million this year alone. If the food service doesn't get an emergency bridge loan of a quarter-million dollars, it won't be able to make payroll.
So how will the Senate fix the problem? Well, with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein taking the lead, the Democrats - that's right, the Democrats - have called a classic Republican play: Privatize it.
The House of Representatives made the switch in the 1980s, and its food service is now better. And profitable: The House has made $1.2 million in commissions since 2003. True to the Founders' vision of the Senate as the more slow-moving branch of government, the Senate has taken 20 years to follow suit.
This was a painful decision for many Democrats who believe that privatization cannot be justified simply because it delivers better service and higher quality for less money. "What about the workers?" they cried. Apparently, some Democrats feel that the top priority in the restaurant business is to generate paychecks for people who are bad at their jobs.
Feinstein, head of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, was forced to deal with reality. "It's cratering," the Washington Post quoted Feinstein as saying. "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."
Yes, yes, go on, Dianne. Run with that thought. Explore it, as the therapists say.
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