House salad. The Capitol is a risky place for our nation’s legislators these days, what with all the committees, subcommittees, threats, hearings, negotiations, briefings, labor disputes, and complaints.
And we’re just talking about what’s going on in the cafeterias.
Two weeks ago, the Senate approved a $1.1 trillion, bipartisan omnibus spending bill that will fund the government through September. President Trump signed the bill from his golf course in New Jersey, curbing—for the moment—a government shutdown. This’ll become relevant to our particular story in a moment.
Surely all that pre-approval wrangling was enough to work up a serious appetite for appropriations. Which, if you work in the House and rely on its food service, might leave you hungry for much, much more: “I don’t have to tell you that there has been an explosion of complaints about both the quality of the food and the cost of the food,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) told the House Appropriations Committee at a hearing on appropriations requests back in March of 2016. “I mean, when you have The New York Times write an article about how bad and expensive the food is in the House cafeteria, you know you have a problem.” (You can read that Times takedown here.)
Since 2015, Sodexo has operated 10 dining areas and carryouts, in-house catering services, and vending machines for the House and its related office buildings. The offerings include a Members’ dining room, Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins, Subway, and a smattering of convenience store-type markets. The House is now two years into a four-year contract with the global food service provider, and by all accounts, the relationship is unsteady at best.
During that same hearing in 2016, House Chief Administrative Officer Will Plaster told the committee: “Obviously, food service, to no one’s surprise, has been often brought up and brought to my attention since my first day on the job, and with a variety of complaints. It is a daily occurrence where I am engaged with our contract management folks and the Sodexo management in an effort to help Sodexo better adjust to the environment that they are now working in here at the House.” For her part, Wasserman Schultz asked if the contract could be terminated for cause, and if so, when. “2019,” came the reply from Plaster. Better order a sandwich and have a seat, Schultz.
The Senate, meanwhile, contracts its dining services to Restaurant Associates, part of the Compass Group; things haven’t been too rosy on its side of the Capitol either. Last summer, a Department of Labor (DOL) investigation found that nearly 700 Senate cafeteria workers had been illegally denied wages and deprived of overtime compensation by the operator and its subcontractor, Personnel Plus. The companies were ordered to pay more than $1 million in back pay, and DOL moved to have both Restaurant Associates and Personnel Plus banned from receiving future federal contracts.
Now, back to that bill. As Roll Call reported earlier this month, “Congress is once again putting its dining service vendors on notice.” Included as part of the 2017 omnibus were provisions requiring the Chief Administrative Officer to work with the Architect of the Capitol (the federal agency in charge of operating the Capitol complex) “to explore the feasibility of making available additional branded options to the House community.” No word yet on whether legislators would want their “branded” options to be fried like Chick-fil-A, or something a little more oats n’ honey, like Panera.
Either way, it’s sorta nice to know that the people (theoretically) in charge of making food policy are subject to the same sad, institutional offerings that those of us who stand to benefit (or lose) from their efforts are. At least for now.
Chicken wrap and a bag of chips, anyone? That’ll be $14.