Lousy food, low pay ... lawmakers testify (gripe) about working on Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill is a terrible place to work -- That’s the lasting impression one might have after listening to lawmakers this week discussing the budget for Congress at a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing.

Here are some of complaints and concerns the lawmakers debated at the session:

-- Low wages for aides

-- How crummy and expensive the food is in the cafeterias.

-- The vulnerability of House garages to a terrorism attack.

- How security precautions make it a pain for staff to navigate the workplace.

-- The need to update the electronic voting system in the House chamber (Keep in mind that an accurate tabulation of voting on the House is the quintessence of the entire enterprise).

-- Nobody knowing how many lawmakers carry firearms into the Capitol complex, perhaps increasing safety risks.

-- The convenience store in the Longworth House Office Building and in women’s restrooms.

-- Whether women should be charged for the aforementioned feminine hygiene products in the House.

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the top Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations panel and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, posed multiple questions to acting House Chief Administrative Officer Bill Plaster at the hearing about the availability of tampons and sanitary napkins.

“When you need a feminine hygiene product, you need one. Immediately,” lectured Wasserman Schultz. “For the convenience store to stop stocking products like that is really inconvenient. It’s the opposite of the purpose of a convenience store.”

She even showed Plaster a photo of out-of-order signs slung across feminine hygiene dispensaries around the Capitol.

Multiple (female) congressional sources indicated that many of the machines hadn’t carried the appropriate products in about a year. And when supply was on hand, the product was described as outdated.

Moreover, Wasserman Schultz groused that women shouldn’t have to pay the required 25 cents when in need.

“It’s like charging for toilet paper,” she protested, then she didn’t “want to go into too much detail” about the issue.

Plaster responded that the vendor “has responded with additional stock,” Wasserman Schultz pointedly retorted the new supply was “insufficient.”

Still, Capitol Hill, with its marble floors and magnificently landscaped grounds, is for many a desirable place to work.

The time-off, include long winter and summer recesses, for example, help compensate for the wages. And for many, the opportunity to work in arguably the world’s most powerful legislative body is a huge stepping stone for future endeavors.

A few years ago, Congress trimmed the overall spending it allocates for itself. This was an effort to “lead by example.” Plus, it looked like good politics back home -- even if constituents received less from the members they elected.

The cuts hit Capitol Hill hard -- putting a squeeze on congressional salaries and the ability to retain good people. The total reductions only amounted to $362 million. That’s a big impact internally but barely a dent when the federal government inches close to spending $4 trillion annually and runs a $19 trillion debt.

Legislative branch spending climbed to $4.36 billion in the latest spending measure. That’s a $1.5 billion increase over the previous year but still below what Congress allocated for Capitol Hill operations seven years ago.

“It means having to let people go,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.,

Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., told Plaster that “any restoration” of money to the accounts lawmakers use to pay staff and run their offices “would be helpful.”

Last year, the House switched vendors for dining services in its cafeterias. The old vendor, Restaurant Associates, still runs Senate eateries as well as those in the Capitol Visitor’s Center.

French food services provider Sodexo succeeded Restaurant Associates in the House. That sparked an immediate outcry from the Capitol Hill community. The food wasn’t as good. Prices were higher. There wasn’t as much variety.

Wasserman Schultz said it was “pretty bad” when the dining discord prompted an article late last year in the New York Times. She also questioned how some lower-rung aides could survive while paying them such paltry salaries.

“After paying for rent and eating in the House cafeteria, we’re lucky we can keep anyone on staff,” she complained. “It’s costing them an arm and a leg to eat.”

Clerk of the House Karen Haas told lawmakers the electronic voting cards lawmakers use during roll call votes are so outdated that an outside company makes them specifically for Congress.

She added that the voting system in the House chamber needs rewiring soon -- a project which involves digging under the floor of the chamber. Moreover, Haas said Braille type must be added to voting stations sprinkled around the chamber for visually impaired lawmakers.

Security has long been paramount on Capitol Hill.

But a lingering problem involves the risks terrorists could pose to congressional garages across the street from the Capitol beneath the House office buildings.

The garages are not what is known as “clean,” meaning aides and lawmakers can drive in, then move into the office buildings without ever clearing security.

Individuals entering on foot pass through magnetometers. Inspecting every car and screening workers offsite would create catastrophic delays and traffic jams around Capitol Hill.

So, the U.S. Capitol Police operates with a lower level of security in the House office buildings. Persons going through the underground tunnels to the Capitol itself from the office complex are screened at checkpoints located there.

Of late, magnetometers recently showed up in the Longworth garage in an effort to bolster security. But the Rayburn garage still lacks the equipment.

At the hearing, Wasserman Schultz later took aim at House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving. She suggested the appropriations committee never signed off on implementing the additional security measures. Other lawmakers see it differently, adding that the Appropriations Committee, which controls the purse strings, in fact allocated funds properly.

Wasserman Schultz hectored Irving with queries about who gave him the go-ahead to install the magnetometers. Irving said he took “responsibility,” later adding he did so in concert with the Speaker’s Office and House Administration Committee.

“I don’t think I’m getting responses to my questions,” Wasserman Schultz protested, in apparent exasperation.

Irving said the House garages carry “tremendous vulnerabilities to us.”

Wasserman Schultz responded by saying that terrorists weren’t stupid since the magnetometers were installed in only one garage. She said terrorists would simply “go to the garage that’s not secure.”

Sam Farr piped up. He suggested the extra screening was “an affront to staff.”

“We’re building an empire on the Hill,” he said.

The California Democrat then asked if Irving knew how many lawmakers arm themselves when they walk through the Capitol. By statute, lawmakers are allowed to pack heat at the Capitol and are not required to go through security screening.

Staff and visitors cannot carry firearms at the Capitol complex.

“We don’t know that number,” Irving replied.

Farr argued it was a fairness issue and that lawmakers shouldn’t be allowed to carry guns at work -- especially if they were trying to “lead by example.”

There also concern the Capitol could join the long list of venues that have experienced deadly, workplace violence -- just like Fort Hood, the Washington Navy Yard and San Bernardino.

Under such a nightmare scenario, there are questions as to whether lawmakers carrying their own guns could make a nightmarish shootout even more volatile if they started to fire their own weapons -- in addition to U.S. Capitol Police officers. Would extra firepower help neutralize a situation or contribute to “friendly fire” injuries or deaths?

Physical security isn’t the only concern at the Capitol. So too is cybersecurity.

Plaster told lawmakers that hackers pose a constant threat.

“They’re not knocking at the front door anymore,” he said.

Plaster says that the House has about 12,000 people on its network, receiving some 200 million emails a year. He estimates that about one-third of all email traffic received is an effort to bore into the House computer system.

And with so many emails and so many users, it’s challenging to harden those defenses.

So if you want to understand Congress and its internal operations, look at Legislative Branch appropriations. That could shed light into how lawmakers tackle issues ranging from ISIS to health care to the economy. It also says a lot about what it’s like to work on Capitol Hill.

Hardly a week goes by without a report demonstrating that Congressional approval ratings are in the tank.

Those are polls that study the performance of lawmakers. And one wonders if aides who toil on Capitol Hill would rate Congress much higher.