We admit it's difficult sometimes to wrap our arms around trillion-dollar budget deficits and a $16 trillion national debt. A story last week by The Daily, an online news outlet, about the financial woes of a relatively small government enterprise makes the mess we're in a bit easier to understand.
By all accounts, the U.S Senate Hair Care Service in the basement of the Russell Building is a busy place. Steeped in tradition, it was originally established as a barber shop for the exclusive and complimentary use of members of the Senate. The shop is now open to the public, though senators get to cut in line. According to The Daily, some 27,000 patrons came last year to be trimmed, clipped or styled side-by-side with Washington's elite.
It's enough business to keep two barbers, six stylists, a manicurist, a shoeshine attendant and an administrative specialist busy. A trim will set you back $20, while a wash, cut and dry is $27. Highlights cost $105. It's a bit pricey by our standards, but probably reasonable when you consider the neighborhood.
The shop doesn't pay rent, utilities or corporate income taxes. Even with those advantages, it's not clear that it has ever made a dime, let alone broken even. Hair care, even at the prices charged in Washington, is a low-margin business, but the Senate ran its shop at a $300,000 loss last year. It required a special appropriation to bail it out.
According to The Daily, the problem is the 11 employees are government workers on a union pay scale. The head barber makes $81,000, before tips, and three others earn $73,658, $70,349 and $54,761 respectively. The shop's payroll amounted to more than $520,000 last year, plus another $230,000 in benefits.
The Senate, which hasn't passed a national budget in more than three years, passed a $300,000 appropriation to keep the shop afloat.
Terrance W. Gainer, the Senate sergeant at arms, has been grappling with the barber shop's finances since he took office five years ago. He said the shop should be privatized, something the House of Representatives did to its barber shop in the 1990s. That shop costs taxpayers nothing and remains viable.
The federal government cannot figure out how to run a barber shop without losing money, something thousands of entrepreneurs have been doing since colonial times in every town in America. It's little wonder that it can't keep the books of its much larger operations balanced.