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Senate’s Effort to Trim Back Could Be Cut Short

Privatizing barbershop could face pushback

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.

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.

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