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There's a shop I'd like to visit

WASHINGTON - In the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building - recently gripped with impeachment fever - there is a rare space of peace and comity: the House barbershop. Step inside, and the shop's wood paneling and sturdy leather chairs whisk you back to an era when a gentleman's barber was as near to him as his priest, and if you asked for a man-bun you might be handed, skeptically, a baked good.

The shop's name is House Cuts, and it's one of two places to get a haircut in Congress; the other is the Senate salon, a somewhat more modern shop in the basement of the Russell building. House Cuts is privately owned and unsubsidized but offers below-market rates to members of Congress or anyone else. (The shop is open to the public, just like congressional offices.) It employs four barbers - three men and one woman - but its indefatigable heart is its owner, Joe Quattrone. Known in Congress as Joe Q, he was born in Italy and is now in his 50th year of trimming congressional hair (or what is left of it).

Joe's fans cross party lines. They range from Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., to House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. A spokesperson for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., says the congressman "regularly" entrusts his hair to another barber in the shop, Shelton Fersner - whose alcove features a photo of President Barack Obama right next to a photo of Fersner smiling mid-haircut with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. On it, Cruz wrote, "a man's barber is a source of wisdom."

Joe has "been around probably longer than most members of Congress," says Scalise. "When you walk in there, it's like a time capsule, and it really brings you back to the old days of the Capitol." Scalise has been going to Joe since he first got to Congress in 2008. When he was bedridden after being shot during a practice for the Congressional Baseball Game in 2017, Joe came to his hospital room to give him a haircut. "It was a real return to normalcy for me," Scalise says.

Joe, however, can do only so much to ensure the shop continues to be seen as neutral ground. While Scalise views House Cuts as a stronghold of tradition, others may look at its wall of framed portraits of white men and see a symbol of a Congress mired in the past. A recently hired Democratic House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity told me that, attracted by the shop's rich history and low prices when she first arrived in Congress, she went downstairs to get a haircut. But when she got there, she was immediately put off.

"It just looks completely unwelcoming to women," she explained, noting that "women staffers are not new to this institution. It's not trying to cater to a large portion of the workforce here."

Women have long struggled to gain equal access to benefits on Capitol Hill. The House gym was opened to women only in 1985, following years of protest. The first women's restrooms were installed off the House floor in 2011.

The House has done slightly better on gender equity when it comes to hair care. When the operator of the beauty shop in the Longworth House Office Building vanished one night in 1967 after a dispute - taking all the equipment with her - the House appropriated $15,000 for the shop's continued operations. It also created the House Select Committee on the Beauty Shop, the only committee in House history that had women as chair and ranking member until, shockingly, this year. In 1995, the GOP majority, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., privatized House services, including the beauty shop.

In 2010, the shop, which had relocated to the Cannon House Office Building, was given a new lease on life as Tides Salon. But the following year, the Chief Administrative Office of the House terminated the contract. The location is now an Au Bon Pain, and Kyle Anderson, director of communications and marketing for the CAO, says there are no plans to bring back the salon. "Members have not expressed interest," he told me.

There may be any number of reasons demand for these services has shrunk, but Anderson sees it as a reflection of "the degree to which members are no longer based here in the district. There have been a lot more who are spending time at home, and they're very loyal to specific vendors." A haircut is an intimate thing, and for members splitting time between their district and this one, a stylist or barber can be a tether to home.

Joe's barbershop, meanwhile, is a tether to the past - a past that some in Congress want to break away from. I asked Scalise whether the new generation of House members understood this culture of continuity, and he said, "I don't know if they do, and it would be a shame if that younger generation doesn't embrace that same kind of desire to build a stronger institution."

Like it or not, though, that younger generation is here to stay, while the older generation is dwindling. And these days, far fewer members are probably in the market for the quick high-and-tight haircut Joe specializes in. Indeed, many staffers I spoke to did not even know the barbershop was there at all.

What's more, building a stronger institution means reckoning with that institution's failings, and here, Joe's dedication to the past begins to seem like a blind spot. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Rep. Duncan Hunter - one convicted of bank fraud as part of a coverup of his molestation of teenage boys, the other enmeshed in a campaign-finance scandal, which this month led him to resign - are still smiling from the shop's wall.

I didn't know what to think about the barbershop. But I needed a haircut. So I took a seat in Joe's chair. I happen to be his perfect customer: a man who has maintained the same mundane, conservative hairstyle for over a decade. Joe and the other barbers are under a contract that effectively bars them from speaking to the press on the record, but nothing in the contract stopped him from cutting a journalist's hair.

Listening to Joe's stories and the action of his scissors, I understood what Scalise was talking about. There was an unpretentious pleasure in having Joe cut my hair. In this living historical diorama, I felt gathered up in something larger than myself. It also, however, felt like something made for people who look like me and Scalise. Give me a decade or two and I'll look like those men on the wall - but Congress won't.
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