June 10, 2008
Al Gore claims (though I've found no evidence to back it up) 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 blazing 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 dropped about $2 million last 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 in the Democratic caucus 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 Administrations, 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.
Perhaps you might meditate on the District of Columbia's public school system, which spends roughly $14,000 a pupil in exchange for one of the worst educations in the country. Every year, one of the greatest mysteries in the nation's capital is whether textbooks have been delivered to the right kids, or even to the right schools. It can take until Christmas to get it all worked out. FedEx Corp., meanwhile, can tell you where any of its millions of packages are in more than 100 countries, right now. (Why not just FedEx the textbooks to the kids?)
Or you might ponder the hilarious example of New York's OTB. For 40 years, these state-run betting parlors have actually lost money. Apparently, the house always wins -- except when Uncle Sam is the bookie.
Look wherever you like, it's not as if there's a shortage of examples. And more are on the way.
Indeed, all augurs point to a tsunami of government ambition in the years ahead, particularly if Barack Obama wins the presidential election in November. Obama promises a national health insurance plan overseen by the kith and kin who serve the Senate its Navy Bean soup. He believes that the failure of public schools -- like D.C.'s -- are largely attributable to the under-funding of education in this country. The district's schools already are among the best funded and worst schools in the country. By all means, let's have more of the same!
Feinstein, to her credit, witnessed an abject failure of government right under her nose -- on her plate, in fact -- and did something about it. "It's clearly not the sort of thing that I ran for the Senate to do," she said, according to the Post. "But somebody has to do it."
Alas, the odds that she or her colleagues will be able to make a similar call about anything that doesn't affect them directly in less than another 20 years seems too much to hope for.
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