Congress Trims Free Haircuts, Other Perks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CONGRESSIONAL perks, including those legendary "free haircuts," aren't what they used to be.

Just ask Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio. When he ran for reelection last year, Representative Hall told voters back home that he had tried the House Barber Shop, but only once.

It was "one bad haircut," he complained in a TV ad. "I went there and they put a hole here in the back of my hair.... My wife saw it [and] she said, `Don't go there anymore.' "

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The fuss over Capitol Hill perks, such as low-cost haircuts, fancy gymnasiums, free airport parking, limousines, and government-paid foreign travel, continues to stir voters. Perks also anger reform-minded members of Congress, including some of this year's 110 freshman members.

Freshman Democrats, who came here vowing to clean things up, want to reduce perks, partly through a 25 percent cut in spending for the legislative branch. They also would tighten rules that let retiring members buy their district office furniture at bargain prices. And they would cap spending on offices and staff for former House speakers.

Freshman Republicans, not to be outdone, want free mailing privileges scaled back. They would use any savings from reduced Capitol Hill budgets to pay off the national debt. And they would make all United States laws apply to Congress itself.

Ever since the House bank scandal, when some members were caught overdrawing their congressional checking accounts with impunity, the perquisites of office in Washington have come under heavy, bipartisan fire.

Congress is charged with paying itself too much, giving itself free medical checkups and drugs, taking advantage of franked mail, below-cost meals, and unnecessary travel, and enjoying elaborate exercise facilities.

Elaborate exercise facilities? Phooey, some members say. Last year, when fees for the Senate gym were boosted to $400 a year, Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi groused: "That place is an armpit."

Free medical checkups? Free drugs? No more. Congress did away with those last April. Members now must pay the going rates.

Below-cost meals? All subsidies were officially ended last year at Capitol Hill restaurants, which are open to the public.

In fact, some members grumble privately that their leading critics, including Ross Perot, are out of date.

The House bank is gone, for example. Salaries are frozen. Staffs, criticized as too large, are being cut.

Yet the drumbeat continues, dragging down Congress's reputation. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, two authorities on Congress, say criticism of perks isn't surprising, even if it is overblown. It reflects a "cultural, populist distaste for politicians in America," they say.

In their ongoing study, the "Renewing Congress Project," Dr. Mann and Dr. Ornstein note in one recent report that Americans have "a visceral reaction against any appearance of comfort or cushiness for public servants at the expense of taxpayers."

The traditional feeling that too many lawmakers are leading a champagne-and-caviar lifestyle was heightened in 1991. As America grappled with its deepest recession in years, House members hiked their salaries from $96,600 per year to $125,100.

Since that time, both the House and Senate enjoyed additional raises, to $133,600, and further fueled anti-Congress sentiment.

Raymond Smock, the official historian of the House, says the public outcry is nothing unusual.

"Back through history, Congress has always been fair game. One of the national pastimes is knocking Congress since the times of the very first Congress," Dr. Smock says.

In fact, the tug of war between public opinion and congressional prerogatives started way back in 1789, when representatives and senators were paid $6 a day while in session.

The first Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenburg, was paid $8 a day because of his position. Foreshadowing the complaints now heard from his successors in Congress, Mr. Muhlenburg grumbled that living expenses in New York City (the first capital) quickly ate up his federal pay.

Early congressmen also griped after the capital was moved to Philadelphia (1790-1800), where Smock says landlords sometimes doubled or tripled the rent in lodging facilities while Congress was in session.

Today's congressmen, unlike early members, serve virtually year-round, so they must maintain homes in both Washington, D.C., and their home districts. Costs here far exceed most of the US.

Government-support facilities on Capitol Hill, such as restaurants, barbershops, and other concessions, were started many years ago as a convenience, so members wouldn't waste time going into town for basic services. The House bank, which drew such criticism, was a 19th-century outgrowth of this effort to provide services for members.

While newcomers to Congress want to wipe away even more perks, some oldtimers say privately that reforms in that area have gone just about far enough.

Last April, for example, House leaders made several significant changes. Among other things, they:

* Required payment of $520 for any member who wished to continue using the formerly free services of the Capitol physician.

* Eliminated free pharmaceuticals for members.

* Discontinued the sale at bargain prices of gift items, momentos, and souvenirs at the House Stationery Supply Store.

* Halted the adjustment of parking tickets for members by the House Sergeant at Arms.

* Imposed tighter guidelines on foreign travel by members and staff.

* Boosted prices at beauty salons and barbershops.

In the House Barber Shop, the price is now $10, up from $6 last year. "Haircuts were never free here," a House barber noted, "but they did cost 50 cents about 30 or 35 years ago."

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