The reversal on utensils is drawing the most attention the House cafeterias… (Jim Young / Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — First the Republicans took over the House. Now it's the cafeterias.
Republicans say the use of "compostable" cups and utensils, a key part of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Green the Capitol initiative, was "neither cost-effective nor energy-efficient." So they brought back plastic utensils and foam cups, ditching the eco-friendly dining wares of the Democratic era.
The replacement spoons, knives, forks and cups are creating quite a stir, dividing lawmakers largely along party lines.
Democratic staffers are talking about boycotting the cafeterias, which serve about 230,000 meals a month, mostly to staff members but also to the public. The issue sprouted a Facebook page, "Stop the Styrofoam Invasion: Bring cardboard back to the House Cafeteria." Some staffers are bringing in their own mugs. Others are becoming office baristas and making their own coffee.
The controversy over cups and forks shows how quickly tensions can escalate in this hyperpartisan Congress, which returns to Washington next week to confront more weighty issues: the stalemate over the national budget and President Obama's handing of the military campaign in Libya.
Democrats see the cafeteria changes as symbolic of GOP hostility toward the environment. Republicans support initiatives that include legislation to thwart regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency budget and the repeal of a national mandate for more energy-efficient light bulbs.
"This seems like a small thing, but it sends a terrible message," said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) of the return to foam cups.
But Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River), whose committee oversees the cafeterias, ended the $475,000-a-year composting program initiated by Pelosi after a study found it had increased energy use and barely reduced carbon emissions.
"I never thought I'd be known as 'Styrofoam Dan,' " said Lungren, who is surprised by all of the fuss.
In defense of the decision, Salley Wood, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Committee on House Administration, said, "I think you'd be hard-pressed to find taxpayers who consider blowing a half-million dollars on a failing program a 'small thing' in this economic environment."
Democrats, who have sought to make the Capitol an example of environmental responsibility, are especially upset over the return of polystyrene, long the scourge of environmentalists who say it takes a long time to break down and pollutes the landscape.
"We all support smart cuts to federal government spending, but the use of Styrofoam is contrary to the direction of nearly every major business in our country," said Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the committee's Democrats. (Styrofoam maker Dow Chemical says the cups aren't Styrofoam; they are made of polystyrene.)
Democrats have urged House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to reconsider.
"I can hardly wait for the lead paint," Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said in a sarcastic tweet.
"This GOP leadership has shown that the only thing they are good at is recycling bad ideas," said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. The eco-friendly dining ware reduced the volume of materials sent to landfills by 535 tons a year.
Yet some welcome the change, saying that the old cutlery, which was made from cornstarch, would often bend, break or dissolve in hot liquids.
"Plastic ware is back in the Capitol!" lobbyist Maury Litwack cheered in a tweet. "Can't tell you how bipartisan was the anger regarding the melting forks and spoons."
But even soup brews controversy.
Daniel Weiss, chief of staff to a Democratic congressman, said he had eaten a lot of very hot soup from the cafeteria, "and I never had a spoon melt."
It's the most attention the House cafeterias have received since a former Republican committee chairman in 2003 renamed the French fries "freedom fries" after France refused to support the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
As for the cafeteria food, Republicans say they have no plans to remove organic choices.
Nor, they say, do they plan to bring back smoking in the lobby outside the House chamber, even though Boehner is a heavy smoker.
And Republicans said the end to eco-friendly utensils and cups did not close the door on improvement to Capitol kitchenware.
They are planning to experiment with washable mugs in one of the cafeterias, possibly leading to the use of real plates and utensils.
Since a lot of staffers eat at their desks, "you're going to lose silverware or you're going to have drawers full of dirty silverware," Hammill said. "Either way, that's not going to save you money."
Democratic staffer Ken Willis said that while he regarded the return of the foam cups as shortsighted, he welcomed the thought of eating on a non-paper plate.
"I'd be most happy with a good, old-fashioned metal fork, spoon and knife that simply gets washed," Willis said.