Congress is constantly badgering the executive branch to run the government like a business. Coming from Congress, this is a really bad idea.
The gift shops at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center are losing money on an annual volume of $3 million in sales, how much the lawmakers won't say even though this is the people's business, so to speak, and not to mention their money.
This is despite the fact that, thanks to the redesign of the Capitol that funnels all the tourists through the Visitors Center, the shops have a captive market of millions of visitors and no other competition in the Capitol Hill complex.
This led to the rather cruel headline in The Hill newspaper, "Can Congress run a business? Well, not if it's a gift shop."
Some observers may remember in 1992 the House was forced to close its bank when it became public that it had an exceptionally tolerant policy toward overdrafts and check kiting by the lawmakers. Others note that with Congress overseeing the construction of the Visitors Center the cost rose from $295 million to $621 million.
In their defense, the people who run the shops say they are poorly located and bound by a "Buy America" policy that cuts them off from China, the world's leading producer of low budget kitsch.
Thus, the Capitol's prices tend to be high, especially compared with the souvenir stands and stores in downtown Washington where the free market and Chinese-made merchandise prevail.
On a recent visit to the Visitors Center, a Hill reporter observed, "Sitting forlornly on the shelves were the $18 U.S. Capitol stoneware mugs. $16 T-shirts and 5-inch replica of the Senate clock, which retails for $120." A $55 George Washington platter didn't seem to be moving, either.
An official of Taxpayers for Common Sense suggested another reason: Congress is so unpopular that people don't want to buy memorabilia that remind them of it.
Congress has instructed the Architect of the Capitol — despite the title he's basically the chief operating office of the complex — to come up with a plan to make the shops profitable by March 31.
Whatever their recommendations, one of them shouldn't be to run the shops as Congress' idea of a business.