Since 1997 the Senate Hair Care shop has consistently run deficits of about $340,000 annually, a taxpayer subsidy that is growing rather than shrinking.
Critics point to the salon as another example of members of Congress living a lifestyle far removed from most of their constituents: pulling in annual salaries of $174,000 along with generous health care and pension benefits, traveling the world on the public dime, and producing self-promoting newsletters and professionally recorded audio and video pieces at public expense.
Last year the Senate Hair Care barbershop/salon ran a $401,000 deficit providing $20 cuts to senators, staff and members of the public who visited the shop in the basement of the Russell Office Building, according to Terry Gainer, the sergeant-at-arms and doorkeeper of the Senate, whose wide-ranging duties include overseeing the hair care operation.
"I think it is the ultimate hypocrisy for any legislator in Congress who is arguing for cuts from the social side of the budget to not include their own budget," said Wright State University political science adjunct professor Paul Leonard, a former Dayton mayor, state legislator and lieutenant governor. "They need to lead by example and make some serious cuts."
The money-losing hair salon is a small piece of the $4.3 billion appropriated by Congress to run the legislative branch in 2012, but it carries symbolic value at a time when members of Congress are targeting defense and domestic programs for $1.2 trillion in across-the-board sequestration cuts over 10 years and also taking aim at entitlement programs serving the elderly and poor.
"While trimming the Senate salon will do little to balance the budget, allowing it to run such a large deficit indicates a lack of seriousness at best, and immorality at worst," said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University.
The legislative branch budget has grown 73 percent since 2000. Although Congress cut funding by 2.7 percent in 2011 and 5.2 percent last year, the 2013 appropriations request of $4.5 billion is up 4.8 percent over 2012. Embedded in those appropriations is a vast menu of services, an army of staff and an array of supplies, equipment and facilities supporting the 100 senators and 435 voting members and six non-voting members of the House of Representatives.
Nearly half of legislative branch appropriations go to the House and Senate. The rest go to legislative entities that assist them, the largest being the Library of Congress, Architect of the Capitol, Government Accountability Office, Capitol Police, Government Printing Office, and Congressional Budget Office.
"While maintaining congressional barbershops or salons, dining rooms, gymnasiums, and many other conveniences close at hand seems reasonable, for these things allow members to save time and focus on their jobs, this smacks of elitism," Smith said. "In spite of what members may think, most Americans enjoy nothing like the perquisites they do on a daily basis. No matter how much it costs, it looks shocking when juxtaposed with the financial and fiscal difficulties our nation is now encountering."
When asked about congressional perks, both Ohio senators -- Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman -- along with Dayton-area congressmen, House Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Mike Turner, all Republicans, pointed to their own efforts to spend responsibly.
"The Senate has already reduced its budget nearly 8 percent since fiscal year 2009, and Sen. Brown supports additional efforts to trim any wasteful spending," said Meghan Dubyak, spokeswoman for Brown. "I'm sure most Ohioans wouldn't be surprised to learn that Senator Brown is not a regular at the Senate Hair Care services."
She said Brown mostly gets his hair cut in Ohio but sometimes heads over to the House barbershop, which is staffed by private contractors and offers hair cuts for $15, five dollars cheaper than the Senate salon.
Caitlin Dunn, spokeswoman for Portman, said he goes to the same Cincinnati barber he's used since the mid-1980s.
"With record deficits, Senator Portman thinks that all programs deserve a hard and fair look at how they are spending tax dollars," she said, pointing to his efforts last year to eliminate 2013 salary increases for Congress as part of the fiscal cliff agreement in December.
Jordan and Turner pointed to efforts to keep spending lean in their own offices.
"It is always important to cut wasteful spending, but it is even more important now that America is hurtling toward a debt crisis," said Jordan. "We have run one of the lowest-spending offices on Capitol Hill for the past few years, and I am always looking for ways to get federal spending under control."
Turner spokesman Tom Crosson said Turner voted to cut the House's operating budget by 11 percent "and has returned dollars from his personal office's budget every year he has been in Congress."
Since becoming speaker in 2011 Boehner moved on several fronts to cut the House's budget and trim member office budgets by 11.4 percent, the kind of "common-sense spending reforms that taxpayers should expect from all federal departments and agencies at a time when the national debt exceeds the size of our nation's entire economy," said his spokeswoman, Brittany Bramell.
While senators and representatives receive $174,000, the Speaker of the House is paid $223,000 annually. The president pro tempore of the Senate and the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate are paid $193,400 annually. After controversy over voted pay raises, Congress made those raises automatic in 1989, although a pay freeze approved by Congress leaves salaries at 2009 levels.
Congress members also receive:
A generous pension that allows a member to retire at 62 with a full pension after five years of civilian federal service.
Rides on a private subway system that runs between offices, committee rooms and the Capitol.
Up to 96 cents per mile for mileage reimbursement.
Free postage -- known as "franking" -- for mailings to constituents.
Over the years -- sometimes in response to scandals -- personal services provided to members of Congress were cut or switched to privatized operations, including the Capitol cafeterias or the House barber shop. While Congress members pay for their hair cuts with their own money, other services such as photography and recording studios are covered by their office allowances -- taxpayer money -- or are provided free of charge.
Nearly all offices providing services, including the Senate hair salon, remain staffed by federal employees with salaries that sometimes may seem eye-popping to the folks back home. For example, in the Senate photography studio, where members can get portraits and other official pictures taken, the lead photographer made $100,000 during the 12-month period between October 2011 and September 2012, according to biannual reports filed with the Secretary of the Senate. Another photographer earned $84,538. The median income for photographers in Washington, D.C., in 2011 was $65,332.
The Senate cabinet shop will frame photographs for members and hand-build desks, chairs and cabinets for the Senate chamber, Capitol corridors and rarely for senator's offices, Gainer said. The cabinet shop supervisor earned $107,484, the cabinet designer made $97,695 and the senior lead cabinet-maker was paid $81,498 between October 2011 and September 2012.
Gainer said the shop's employees are fine craftsmen able to make the historically appropriate furniture for the Capitol, particularly public areas.
The Senate hair salon provides about 509 services a week -- a range of haircuts, shampooing, coloring and waves, nail services, hair removal and shoe shines. It costs about $900,000 annually to operate. One stylist earned $79,202 annually and another made $74,615, according to the biannual spending reports. The guy who gives $6 shoeshines was paid $40,432.
By comparison, the 2011 median annual salary for a hairstylist in Washington was $40,934. For a barber it was $49,920, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gainer said he has looked at privatizing the hair care service, just as the House did in the mid-1990s. But he opposes laying off the federal employees. Rather, said Gainer, he plans to replace staff with contractors by attrition, consider early retirement buyouts or raise prices.
"It could be done quicker if we fired everybody, but I think that would be inappropriate," Gainer said. "I am trying to be a good shepherd with those funds, but I am also mindful that some of those people have been down there for 20 and 25 years, or nine years, and I am trying to balance that with the service I think is historically appropriate."
Gainer oversees a $203.7 million budget and is in charge of many of the services provided to senators. He is responsible for protection of senators, staff and visitors within the Senate chamber, emergency planning, information technology, the Senate post office, Capitol facilities, transportation and fleet operations, parking, the cabinet shop, photography and recording studios. Appropriations for the sergeant at arms have grown by 102 percent since 2000 and staffing grew to 959 from 787 during the same period, in part due to the need for greater security measures in the wake of the Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks 2001.
"I know this sounds like the defensive part, but it is not a for-profit business we are running here," Gainer said last week. "We are a service organization."
Dale Eisman, spokesman for Common Cause, said Congress should scrub the budgets to eliminate waste, but he said government needs to pay people enough to attract smart, talented employees who have to live in a very expensive city.
"Government is pretty much like anything else: If you want quality you have to pay for it," said Eisman. "We're not going to get good government on the cheap."
Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said forcing Congress members to cut services that make their lives easier typically takes some kind of scandal or "revelation of some terrible graft in the programs." He's not sure they have the will to do it on their own and said professional courtesy often limits their criticism of the perks of office enjoyed by their counterparts across the Capitol.
"Senators are not about to lecture their colleagues in the House about franking privileges any more than House members are about the beauty salons," said Sepp. "It's an issue of incumbency and privilege much more than it is political party."
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