Taxpayers fleeced in bailout of Senate barbershop 'institution'
BY MARK STRICHERZ
America's most distinguished leaders get their hair cut at the Senate barbershop, but taxpayers are the ones really getting clipped.
The barbershop ran almost $300,000 in the red last year but received an infusion from Senate coffers that is keeping it in business, the Senate sergeant at arms, Terrance Gainer, told The Daily.
A federal bailout isn't that unusual since the economic downturn, but some senators didn't even know their salon was in hot water — and don't think it should be, considering what they pay for a little off the ears.
A shampoo, cut and blow dry is $27 and highlights are $105, according to the barbershop's website. A trim costs $20, more than double what Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., gets charged when he goes to his barber back home.
"I give him $12 with a tip," Leahy said.
When Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., learned about the shortfall, he said, "It did? It shouldn't. It should pay for itself."
A Senate barbershop subsidized by the government is a sore point with GOP members, too.
Former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., blames the money woes on the stylists, who are federal employees. He contends they're overpaid compared to their private-sector counterparts.
"They are using union labor, and so their benefits and wages are higher than those of many jobs," Fitzgerald said.
To support his argument, Fitzgerald contrasts the salaries and benefits of the Senate's stylists to what is offered by Capitol Barber, three blocks away.
Capitol's four barbers and stylists made $22,000 to $30,000 last year with no benefits, manager Lynn Dang said. At the Senate barbershop, formally called Senate Hair Care Services, the top four barbers and stylists made more than twice that — $54,761; $70,349; $73,658; and $81,641 — plus they have a generous 401(k) plan, health care and paid vacation. In all, the government contributed $230,000 in benefits for the barbershop, said Eve Goldsher, a spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Gainer acknowledged the barbershop's staff members "are well paid, and it gives them a leg up on their nongovernment counterparts."
Regardless of where they stand on lending the barbershop a financial hand, senators agree the barbershop is first rate.
One of the barbershop's most loyal customers is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been going there since he was the Navy's liaison to the Senate in the late 1970s. McCain told The Daily he is fond of all the stylists, especially longtimer Mario D'Angelo.
"I call him the butcher. He is a butcher, and I've got the scars to prove it," McCain joked. "I'm lucky to be alive and have needed several blood transfusions to survive."
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., called D'Angelo "an institution."
"I've been going to him for 20 years. He is so real. I know his extended family, which is Italian, of course," Kent said. "We're very close."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, described D'Angelo as "one of the finest people in the whole Senate."
As a sign of appreciation, Hatch said he sends D'Angelo's family a card and candy every Christmas.
Housed in Room 70 of the Russell Senate Office Building, the barbershop is easy to get to from the Senate floor. All a customer has to do is take the elevator and to the basement, hop on an underground Senate train and walk a few hundred feet.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., had her well-coiffed dark hair cut done at the barbershop once — simply for the convenience.
"Usually, I get my hair cut at Posh Hair Studio in Concord [her home state's capital], but it was right there," she said.
For the barbershop's first 110 or so years of operation, from 1859 through the early 1970s, senators were its only customers — and they didn't hand over a dime for their dos, according to Senate historian Donald Ritchie.
Today, the barbershop is open to the public and had 27,000 customers last year. Legislators are still special, though. Hanging on one wall is a white 2-foot-by-3-foot sign stating: "Members and employees of the Senate shall have priority in this shop." On other walls hang two photos that show the exclusiveness of the barbershop's clientele: One is a color photo of President Obama, inscribed: "Best wishes!" The other is a signed photo of John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Perhaps a future president gets his — or her — hair done now at the salon; it's anybody's guess. What is certain is that the barbershop is an institution — and Gainer wants to make sure it survives, however he has to.
After struggling to stabilize the barbershop's finances for the five years he's been on the job, Gainer has decided privatization is the only answer.
"There's no way to sugarcoat" the barbershop's fiscal woes, he said.
"If you put aside [the employees'] livelihoods, it's costing the government money, and that includes taxpayers like you and me. That's the way it is," he said. "I just have not pulled the trigger. That's on me."