The barbershop of the U.S. Senate has run deficits of approximately $350,000 a year for each of the last 15 years. So Senate sergeant at arms Terry Gainer has decided to try out a new model, one that has looked rather unfashionable during the Obama era: privatization.
Gainer has tried to trim Senate Hair Care Services for the past few years. Now the political climate troubling everyone else on Capitol Hill is allowing him to move faster than he anticipated towards privatizing it completely.
“I’ve accelerated my goal to get there through leveraging sequestration,” Gainer explains. “The only real way we’re going to change this thing around without pricing ourselves out of the market is by reducing the number of fulltime employees.”
The sequestration’s required spending cuts provide convenient cover. Gainer is offering early retirement to all eligible employees, hoping to replace them with independent contractors. Four employees have already accepted the offer, and they plan to retire in the next 60 days. Gainer likens these “buyouts” to those that corporations often make. He has no timeline for complete privatization, but is determined to see it through.
If previous efforts to end taxpayer funding of the Senate barbershop are any guide, it will take much longer than one might expect. According to a report from the Office of the Sergeant at Arms, Senator Paul Douglas (D-Ill.) spoke out against the federally funded barbershop back in 1951, suggesting that taxpayers need not pick up the tab for their legislators’ haircuts. Arizona senator Carl Hayden quickly rejected Douglas’s efforts, gaining support by arguing that the barbershop was an important institution passed down from the great statesmen who came before them.
A Senate barbershop that provides government-subsidized cuts, shaves, and shines is a tradition that predates the Civil War. Over the years, its legend has grown. The barbershop was thought to be more private than the cloakrooms: a place that sometimes shaped the course of human events. In 1937, the debate about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Judiciary Reorganization Bill—the effort to pack the Supreme Court with justices favorable to the New Deal—may have forever shifted after one encounter there. According to the report from the sergeant at arms’s office,
Republican Senator Styles Bridges, an opponent of the bill, visited the barbershop to receive a shave. The barber placed a warm towel over Bridges’ face to soften his whiskers. A few minutes later, Democratic Senator Henry Ashurst, one of the bill’s defenders, bustled into the shop in search of Senator Prentiss Brown, who had remained undecided during the debate. Ashurst mistook the shrouded Bridges for Brown and, hoping to sway him, bent down close to his ear and began to whisper secrets about White House policy related to the bill. Bridges lay completely still, absorbing the information, and Ashurst left the shop deceived about Bridges’ identity. The bill suffered a 70-20 defeat in the Senate.
Rick Santorum’s proposal suffered an even greater defeat when he took on the barbershop in 1997. Senators and barbers alike were quick to object. “If you start to privatize,” intoned Arlen Specter, Santorum’s fellow Republican senator from Pennsylvania, “[y]ou put a lot of people out of a job, and you have a lot of disruptions.” Specter and his colleagues were also concerned about finding a barbershop that would cater to lawmakers’ irregular timetables. “I don’t know when you could get a haircut with our schedule around here. You can slip in and out of the barbershop in 20 minutes. If you have to go downtown, it will take an hour and a half,” Specter complained. Like Douglas’s effort before him, Santorum’s plan failed to survive a Rules Committee vote, but then-sergeant at arms Greg Casey decided to consolidate the Senate barbershop and beauty parlor anyway.
Santorum lamented the hopelessness of his attempt to battle the barbers’ influence among his comrades: “When your barber has you in the chair, and he says, ‘You’re not going to cut my job, are you?’ what are you going to say?”
Gainer has taken away the burden of persuading senators to agree. He points to the House of Representatives’ success in contracting out its barbershop’s services. House Republicans successfully privatized their taxpayer-subsidized barbershop in 1995, when they passed a resolution from then-speaker Newt Gingrich’s privatization task force. The operation had been losing $50,000 annually, according to Roll Call.