WASHINGTON - The national deficit is shrinking fast, but a stubborn drain on the federal budget remains in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, where the Senate barber shop and beauty salon have been leaking red ink for years.
In a shop that charges $9 a haircut, one receptionist earns $47,000 in annual salary and benefits, the senior barber and hair stylist each earn about $62,000, and the shoe-shine attendant picks up $27,400.
Not surprisingly, there was a $360,000 operating deficit in the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1 - the latest in a succession of annual deficits that stretch back to the 1970s and have deepened in the 1990s.
The House of Representatives privatized its hair-care services in 1995, saving more than $100,000 a year. But members of the Senate Rules Committee decided Oct. 30 to continue subsidizing the Senate shop.
Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican member of the Rules Committee from Pennsylvania, has argued in favor of privatizing the shops, but says persuading the other senators to go along has been a struggle.
"When your barber has you in the chair, and he says, `You're not going to cut my job, are you?' what are you going to say?" Santorum said.
The shop is open to anyone who happens to wander by, but its location in the basement of a well-guarded office building cuts down on the walk-in traffic. Some cutters work on enough hair to cover only about 40 percent of their salary and benefits.
The barbers and stylists refuse to talk directly about the deficit and its causes, but their defenders argue the senators' hectic schedules make for many canceled haircuts.
Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Warner, R.-Va., hopes to cut the deficit next year by consolidating the barber shop and styling salon into a single operation, increasing the price of a haircut by 25 percent and expanding shop hours.
"The chairman's goal is to reduce to zero the operating loss," said committee spokesman Carter Cornick. "In doing that, you want to give due respect and consideration to those who have served the Senate for many, many years."
But there's no guarantee the economizing will make a significant difference.
"Because people get their hair cut there every month or so, they have developed relationships," Santorum said. "It's just like telling a good friend you're going to cut his salary. It's a painful thing for members to do."