Hot Lunch, Safe Halls

Posted May 13, 2008 at 10:59am

Cafeteria prices are rarely a matter of state importance. And CEOs seldom get involved in struggles over bringing their office buildings up to code.

But when 100 Senators and their staffs are the ones waiting in line for the daily lunch special, the question of who works behind the counters and the steam tables — and what kind of benefits they receive — becomes a small but important part of how the government operates in the nation’s Capitol. Likewise, when the Capitol is the workplace in question, a magnifying glass will be applied to every effort to improve the physical plant.

Two recent stories in Roll Call highlighted the unique hurdles Congress faces in bringing its campus operations up to par, whether it be the quality and cost of service, in the case of the Senate eateries, or the actual safety of the buildings and work spaces sprawled across Capitol Hill.

Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wants to move a bill that would allow a private firm, Restaurant Associates, to take over the Senate’s cafeterias. The eateries are expected to lose $2 million this year, according to Feinstein’s office, and under the current setup, they could require an infusion of $250,000 from the Senate emergency fund in July just to cover payroll.

Feinstein’s office says bringing in a private vendor would help stop those losses, while improving the daily menus. Problem is, she needs to pass a bill to make that happen — and because of certain bidding rules, she is operating under a short deadline. But a group of Democratic Senators has objected to the legislation, noting that current employees of the restaurants have deep concerns over how privatization will affect them.

We understand Feinstein and the concerned Senators are attempting to talk through their differences. Just as the public should expect the highest standards of behavior from its representatives, we expect Congress to manage its own operations, and treat its employees, in an efficient and fair manner that at least matches private-sector best practices. That said, we believe the sides should be able to reach a compromise this month that would allow the legislation — and the desired improvements — to go forward.

Meanwhile, a report from the Office of Compliance estimates that the number of hazards within and about the Capitol complex will be reduced by 25 percent by the end of the 110th Congress. That’s good news. On the other hand, that’s 25 percent of an eye-popping 13,000 hazards identified in late 2006.

Fixing those problems is going to cost money — a lot of it. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) last month served notice that he won’t be a rubber stamp for the Capitol improvements budget in his new role as ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. For one thing, he wants the Government Accountability Office to take a hard look at the priorities put forth by acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers.

We have no argument with Alexander’s desire to ensure funding flows to the most important safety projects and to root out waste. But we are concerned that putting the brakes on desperately needed repairs, such as the intolerable situation in the utility tunnels beneath the Capitol, would be the wrong approach both from fiscal and safety perspectives. The whopping bills that are coming due now are all the proof we need that revitalization of the physical plant has already been postponed for far too long.