After about a month in control of the House of Representatives, Republicans haven't managed to undo as many deeds of their Democratic predecessors as they'd like. They couldn't get rid of "Obamacare," and they haven't made much headway in slashing the president's $4-trillion budget. But the GOP has succeeded in short order in one critically important venture: getting rid of the "compostable" cornstarch-based knives, forks and spoons that were a universally — and bipartisanly — hated feature of the House cafeteria operation.
The tableware, the color of mucus and as bendable as a pocket watch in a Salvador Dali painting (and thus unable to pierce any foodstuff firmer than the innards of Brie cheese), was the most visible manifestation of recently deposed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Green the Capitol initiative. That was her carbon-cutting effort to use the food-service and other House operations to fight global warming and a host of other perceived environmental, health and social ills. During the lunchtime rush, you could observe dozens of staffers struggling to stab lettuce leaves and poultry pieces with fork tines that appeared to be double-jointed as well as dull.
But on Jan. 25, Dan Lungren, the GOP congressman from the Sacramento area who now heads the House Administration Committee, directed the House chief administrative officer to trash — so to speak — the composting program, which converts the dining service's cornstarch tableware, along with its biodegradable plates, trays, cups and drinking straws, into garden mulch.
It turns out that the composting program not only cost the House an estimated $475,000 a year (according to the House inspector general) but actually increased energy consumption in the form of "additional energy for the pulping process and the increased hauling distance to the composting facility," according to a news release from Lungren.
As far as carbon emissions were concerned, Lungren concluded that the reduction was the "nominal ... equivalent to removing one car from the road each year." He plans to switch the House to an alternate waste-management system recommended by the Architect of the Capitol, in which dining-service trash would be incinerated and the heat energy captured.
"Composting releases methane," said Lungren's spokesman, Brian Kaveney, and methane gas, as even the most warming-conscious among us have to admit, traps atmospheric heat far more efficiently than carbon dioxide, the usual bugaboo of the climate-change crowd.
Lungren's stick-a-biodegradable-fork-in-it (if you can) stance toward a linchpin of Pelosi's grand green plan marks the latest skirmish in a lifestyle war that may on its surface seem purely partisan: GOP global-warming skeptics versus a Gaia-worshipping Democratic Party. But I'd say the battle lines are really between an elite determined to impose upon a captive populace its notions of what is good for it — cost be damned — and the populace itself, which would rather not be coerced.
In Pelosi's home territory, the city of San Francisco, composting is mandatory for householders, who face a fine if they throw orange peels into the trash rather than into their city-provided composting bins. Plastic bags are against the law in large-chain stores, and plastic water bottles are against the law in City Hall. In the name of health you can't buy a soft drink on public property in San Francisco, and soon you won't be able to buy a Happy Meal with a toy at McDonald's for your kid. The uber-bohemians of San Francisco love this sort of thing; others, maybe not so much.
Green the Capitol was launched in 2007, soon after Pelosi became speaker. The Longworth cafeteria, catering to House employees but also serving the public, was to be the carbon-neutral jewel in Pelosi's green crown. Out went the familiar mystery meatloaf and high-fat coconut cake and in came food that was organic, sustainable, locally grown and fair-traded.
I visited the Longworth cafeteria in early 2008, soon after it reopened under Pelosi's rule. Not only had food been replaced with "cuisine" (roasted corn and poblano chili, anyone?), but there was also a sea of didactic signage. One sign reminded you that the beef in the hamburgers was "humanely raised" and "antibiotic-free." Other placards touted "cage-free eggs" and "rBGH-free milk." A poster trumpeted the "pulper," a costly machine that made compostable cubes out of food waste. And then there were the recycling stations, where a lengthy set of rules instructed diners on how to separate trash items and dump them into four different slots (coffee cups in the "compostable" slot, coffee lids in the "landfill" slot).
No sooner did the cafeteria reopen than the grousing began, from both sides of the political aisle. Some diners tried to puzzle out what turkey escabeche might be and wondered what happened to the fried chicken. Others complained about the new high prices that accompanied the new haute offerings.
"I just wished my pay improved" along with the food quality, a Democratic aide complained to a reporter for Politico.
But the bitterest carping was over that compostable flatware. A Hill urban legend circulated that the spoons would melt in a cup of hot coffee. They don't, but they do bend readily enough to make you think you're Uri Geller.
When I revisited the Longworth cafeteria last week, three years later, I could not help noticing that although the flimsy cornstarch tableware was still in use — it will be retired as soon as the stock on hand is used up — a sea change had otherwise occurred. The sermony signage was gone, as was much of the art-food: the purple Peruvian potatoes and the "panzanella station," where you could build a salad out of arugula, figs and large wedges of stale bread. The salad bar these days is, well, a salad bar, with trays of chopped olives, shredded carrots and garbanzo beans to top the lettuce. Serious efforts have been made to cater to the needs of House employees who can't afford Armani suits. Among the stations with the longest lunchtime lines was one labeled simply "BBQ." Its special was a $5.50 pulled-pork platter with two sides (including classic mac and cheese) and cornbread.
The years from 2006 through 2010, starting with the Democratic takeover of the House and ending with the party's rout after two years of Barack Obama's presidency, were four years of an effort by a know-it-all liberal elite to impose sweeping and extreme social and fiscal measures on a centrist-to-right public: four years of turkey escabeche, so to speak.
Now, with a GOP House and divided government, there seems to be a return to normalcy, and it's beginning with the promise of knives and forks that work.
Charlotte Allen is a Washington writer.