The notion that government can run an enterprise of any sort, even one with a hallowed tradition and something close to a captive clientele, better than private operators just took another hit. The U.S. Senate quietly decided, in a late-night vote last week, to privatize the Senate restaurants.
The Senate restaurants, which include the stately Senate dining room in the Capitol and a huge cafeteria and coffee shops scattered through the two-building Senate compound, have lost $18 million since 1993 and are slated to lose $2 million this year. Without an immediate $250,000 subsidy from taxpayers, they won't be able to make payroll next month. The restaurants have lost money for 37 of the 41 years they have been in "business," but taxpayers have made up the difference.
The food in the Senate eateries is "noticeably subpar," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who, as chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, supervises these culinary/fiscal horrors. Senate staffers routinely trek through the tunnels beneath the Capitol to eat at the House restaurants, which were privatized in the 1980s. Rather than losing millions, Restaurant Associates manages to make a profit and pay $1.2 million in commissions to the House since 2003.
Now we know. Pretty much everybody of whatever ideological persuasion knows that the private sector works better than the public sector. But despite the airtight logic of advocates like us, governments tend to privatize functions only when they have no other choice available or when their own comfort is at stake. And a Senate that knows it can't even run a restaurant soon will vote to have the government run health care.