WASHINGTON – The famed bean soup served in Senate restaurants is made up of dried navy beans, smoked ham hocks, onions and a million-dollar tab for the taxpayer.
That menu for financial distress could be about to change as the Senate, following the lead taken by the House more than 20 years ago, moves to privatize the restaurants, coffee shops and cafeterias located in the Capitol and Senate office buildings.
The Senate last week passed a bill authorizing Senate restaurants, now run by the Architect of the Capitol, to go private, ending months of back-and-forth between Democrats appalled by the operation's money-losing ways and other Democrats worried that restaurant workers would get thrown out like the ham bones.
The measure is expected to win easy approval in the House, where privately run restaurants and food courts run profits and draw good crowds every day of House members and employees, tourists and disaffected Senate staff.
By comparison, wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee has spearheaded the privatization drive, the Senate restaurants last year cost taxpayers $1.3 million with food quality and service that is "noticeably sub par."
She noted that in budget years 2003 through 2007, Senate restaurants racked up deficits of $4.7 million while the House received commissions from the operator estimated at about $1.2 million.
Losses could top $2 million this year, and the restaurants will need a transfer of $250,000 from the Senate's emergency funds in July to make payroll, she wrote in a letter to other senators.
A private review commissioned by Feinstein found that the Senate operation had no strategy for improvement other than price increases. She said new menu items "have not been remotely reflective of the rapid change in the food industry whether it be health and nutrition or ethnic foods."
A small Senate take-out on the first floor of the Capitol offers, with its hot dogs and sandwiches, candy bars, pain medicine and, until recently, cigarettes. The sit-down restaurant that once adjoined it has closed, becoming new staff office space. With that, there is no public dining space inside the Capitol; senators and their guests can still eat in an ornate dining room with a staff dressed in jackets and ties.
But Feinstein's efforts to change the system ran into obstacles from four Democratic senators: Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who questioned whether current workers would face lower wages, reduced benefits and be deprived of union representation.
Feinstein said she was "somewhat dismayed" by the resistance. She stressed that under the proposed contract with Restaurant Associates, the New York-based company that runs the House restaurants and will operate the 550-seat cafeteria in the underground Capitol Visitor Center slated to open this fall, current employees will continue at the same basic rate of pay and receive the same level of health insurance and retirement benefits.
Those not wishing to switch to the new system would be eligible for a voluntary buyout of up to $25,000. She said 47 of the 96 permanent restaurant employees are expected to take the buyout.
The four senators signed off, saying they were pleased that Restaurant Associates was willing to commit in the contract to union neutrality and a reasonable annual cost-of-living adjustment.
Restaurant Associates did not return calls seeking comment, and it was unclear if they were committed to serving bean soup in the new Senate restaurants.