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Menu for reform - Tom Purcell

Before the government takes over more of our health-care system, the least it can do is make a decent sandwich. I refer to an interesting report that ran in The Washington Post one year ago.

The U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee oversees a network of restaurants, cafeterias and coffee shops throughout the Senate complex on Capitol Hill. Its crown jewel is the ornate Senate Dining Hall, where senators and their guests are served by waiters wearing jackets and ties. But there was a problem: The restaurant operation was losing lots of dough.

Why? For starters, the food stunk. Many Senate staffers preferred to flock across the Capitol to lunch at the privately managed House cafeteria. It offered more options and tastier grub. The once-profitable Senate catering division had lost customers, too. That's because senators began requesting waivers, so they could hire private caterers for their special events.

Imagine that: a U.S. senator seeking special treatment.

In any event, the Senate-run operation was bleeding red ink. It had lost $18 million since 2003. It was on track to lose $2 million in 2008 alone -- a loss taxpayers had to eat.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., then-chairwoman of the Rules and Administration Committee, wrote to her colleagues about the matter. She cited a troubling Government Accountability Office finding: The government employees who managed the Senate restaurants had little interest in breaking even. This was "due to an expectation that the restaurants would operate at a deficit annually."

Imagine that: a government operation that runs an annual deficit.

The solution was obvious to some: Run the Senate restaurant system the same way as the House system. In the 1980s, you see, the Democrat-controlled House brought in a private contractor, Restaurant Associates of New York, to manage its cafeteria operations. Its food is so good -- and its operations run so well -- that Restaurant Associates paid $1.2 million in commissions to the House between 2003 and 2008.

And so, last summer, the Democrat-controlled Senate decided to do the same, and contracted Restaurant Associates to have at it.

There is a lesson here about the best way for the government to collaborate with the private sector to unleash the best of human nature to attain the best possible results. The Senate Dining Hall food stunk. The reason the operation had been losing lots of taxpayer dough was that there was no incentive to do otherwise. Under the government model, restaurant employees were more prone to be agitated by hungry customers than pleased to serve them. The more customers who came in, after all, the more work employees and managers had to do.

Who can blame government employees for feeling this way? Whether or not customers came in to dine, government employees and managers still got their pay and their benefits.

A private organization, though, must turn a profit or the money it loses will be its own. If its employees work hard to please customers -- by offering excellent grub and excellent service -- the organization will thrive and every employee will benefit. It's simple human nature: When people have a stake in something, they attain better results. That's what many lawmakers are missing as they attempt to "reform" our health-care system.

Most folks don't want the government to micromanage the decisions that are ours to make. We want to increase our stake. We want to choose our own insurance and providers. We want more options, not fewer. We want to unleash private individuals and private organizations to innovate ways to improve care and reduce costs -- not more government meddling.

Government's best role here is to reset some basic guidelines to address the basic challenges -- portability, pre-existing conditions, the uninsured, cost, etc. -- then, get the heck out of the way.

For goodness' sake, a group of elite senators couldn't oversee a lousy cafeteria operation. What makes them think they can oversee a massive health-care system?

Tom Purcell, a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail him at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.