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In the past, any proposal to change the way the barbershop traditionally operated was met with distrust and disapproval, even before the sergeants-at-arms and others began to discuss privatization.
According to the Senate historian’s office, the barbershop was established in its earliest incarnation in the early 1860s, when senators needed a place to “groom themselves before appearing on the Senate floor.”
Shaves and haircuts were offered free of charge from the beginning, and the Senate even got into the practice of purchasing gold-trimmed, personalized shaving mugs for each lawmaker.
One of the earliest suggestions from within the Senate community that the chamber abolish these perks came in 1951 from the late Sen. Paul H. Douglas, D-Ill., whose proposal to close the barbershop was defeated on the Senate floor on the grounds that the establishment was not just a convenience but an institution.
Senators had to make concessions in the late 1970s, however, as the operation started losing significant money. The times were changing: The “wet shave” was growing antiquated, and the barbers were having trouble styling their customers’ hair according to the latest trends.
The shop opened to administrative assistants as well as senators to increase business, the personalized shaving mugs were no longer distributed to cut costs and, finally, customers were forced to start paying for services.
In 1997, then-Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., took up Douglas’ mantle and launched a formal crusade to privatize Senate hair care services.
Again, other senators successfully fought back against the proposal, speaking not only of the importance of preserving the shop’s history but also of maintaining a necessary convenience.
“I don’t know when you could get a haircut with our schedule around here. You can slip in and out of the barber shop in 20 minutes. If you have to go downtown, it will take an hour and a half,” the late Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., said at the time.
According to the Senate historian’s records, Specter and others also questioned what effect privatization would have on the current workforce, a harbinger perhaps to discussions that could flare up if privatization is formally considered again this year.
In a brief interview with CQ Roll Call, Gainer said it was “getting ahead of the game” to discuss when and how privatization might take place. He did indicate, though, that he had no intention of seeing the shop shut down.
“Having it there does an important service,” he said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.