Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Senator Dianne Feinstein: Advocate for privatization!?

The cafeterias serving the House of Representatives are run under contract by Restaurant Associates (since the 1980s) and turn a profit while serving good food that draws legions of staffers each day from all over Capitol Hill.

The Senate dining room is a public eatery, where even the wait staff averages $37,000/year, the food is terrible, and taxpayers have had to fork out subsidies of $18 million since 2003 just so Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) could continue to eat sushi that costs you and me more than an Amtrak ticket.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), of all the unexpected advocates of free enterprise, led the finally successful attempt to have the Senate dining room privatized.

From the Washington Post:

In a letter to colleagues, Feinstein said that the Government Accountability Office found that "financially breaking even has not been the objective of the current management due to an expectation that the restaurants will operate at a deficit annually."

But Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), speaking for the group of senators who opposed privatizing the restaurants, said that "you cannot stand on the Senate floor and condemn the privatization of workers, and then turn around and privatize the workers here in the Senate and leave them out on their own." . . .

The rules committee began exploring its outsourcing options in 2005, when Republicans controlled the chamber. When Democrats took power last year, Feinstein ordered several studies, including hiring a consultant to examine management practices, before deciding privatization was the only possibility.

In a closed-door meeting with Democrats in November, she was practically heckled by her peers for suggesting it, senators and aides said.

"I know what happens with privatization. Workers lose jobs, and the next generation of workers make less in wages. These are some of the lowest-paid workers in our country, and I want to help them," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch labor union ally, said recently. The wages of the approximately 100 Senate food service workers average $37,000 annually.

Feinstein made another presentation May 7, warning senators that if they did not agree to turn over the operation to a private contractor, prices would be increased 25 percent across the board.

Eventually, Democrats agreed to pass legislation that includes guarantees for those who go to work for Restaurant Associates. They would retain their current salaries and federal health and pension benefits. Employees who choose to leave instead would receive buyout packages of as much as $25,000 -- paid by the Senate. Half the current employees are likely to take that deal.

New employees, however, will not receive federal benefits, though they will be allowed to unionize.

By one estimate, Restaurant Associates would turn a large profit within three years and would begin paying about $800,000 annually in commissions to the Senate.

Our public masters (oops, did I say masters? so sorry, I obviously meant servants) get elected to do the public's business and do it with free franking, a private shopping mall, a retirement plan far superior to social security, and other amazing perks paid for by you and me, and yet somehow we're not living in an oligarchy, and these are the people entitled to make the laws that tell average Americans how to live their lives.

(And please note that Feinstein was not actually suffering from a Libertarian hot-flash: she was not motivated toward privatization through any belief in free markets, just because the food was bad and her own costs were going to go up 25%.)

h/t to Kids Prefer Cheese

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