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Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer isn’t the first official in his position to seriously explore privatizing the government-subsidized Senate Hair Care shop. He is, however, the first who might be able to bring it to fruition — though not without some resistance.
The storied Capitol Hill institution in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building that once provided free haircuts and shaves to senators, colloquially referred to as the barbershop, has been losing thousands of dollars a year for decades.
Despite such losses, veteran senators and staunch defenders have over the years fought attempts to hand off the reins to a private vendor, including efforts championed by two of Gainer’s predecessors, Howard Liebengood in the early 1980s and Gregory Casey in the mid-1990s.
But now Gainer has the leverage of sequestration, which makes any plan that would save the legislative branch some money one to be taken seriously.
Gainer’s recommendation also comes at a convenient moment: The size of the barbershop’s staff is poised to shrink at the end of the month anyway, should four of the barbershop’s nine employees depart as planned as part of Gainer’s team-wide buyout program.
And senators who have generally stood together to ward off barbershop adversaries now appear to be warming to privatization.
“I think that . . . some of my old friends there, they recognize the time has come for that,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of the barbers themselves.
But the push to privatize the shop that now caters to men and women from outside and within the Senate community would still face uphill battles on both logistical and sentimental fronts.
In 2008, the Rules and Administration Committee led the Senate in privatizing food services on its side of the chamber. The effort was almost derailed, however, by a group of senators who were concerned about privatization’s effect on the host of rights and benefits the current workforce enjoyed as congressional employees.
A compromise was struck that allowed the authorizing legislation to pass, but similar concerns could arise this time as well, with many of the same players — Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Robert Menendez of New Jersey — still serving in the Senate.
It is also unclear at this point whether the leaders of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee would support turning the barbershop over to outside hands. Spokesmen for Chairman Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., did not respond to requests for comment. Employees in the barbershop also declined to comment.