WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate restaurant system has its own share of headaches with lawmakers who eat first and don't pay later, and routinely reports as much as $384,000 in uncollected meal tabs at the end of each fiscal year, government audits show.
But roughly two-thirds of the outstanding balances are no more than a month overdue, and collection efforts can usually reduce the amount owed to $40,000 to $60,000, according to the General Accounting Office, which audits the finances of congressional dining rooms, cafeterias, snack bars and newsstands.
"You get a reminder that you're past due, and they harangue you," said an office manager for a senior Democratic senator, who claimed that delinquency seemed less of a problem in the Senate than in the House because of aggressive monthly bill collecting.
The most recent audit shows that the 100 senators owed $384,712 in unpaid restaurant bills as of Sept. 29, 1990, including $56,880 that was more than 90 days overdue. Bills for about $266,000 in meals, or 69 percent of the total, were outstanding for no more than 30 days, the GAO said.
"Most people who run tabs wait about a month to pay their bills," observed David L. Clark Jr., a GAO auditor. "You'll have to judge whether that's out of line."
The agency, which released the audit of Senate restaurants last week, also noted that 84 percent of the overdue accounts were collected by Dec. 31, leaving bills for $61,553 for Senate meals outstanding.
The GAO did not identify delinquent senators or say how many there were.
William F. Raines Jr., top aide to the architect of the Capitol, who manages the restaurants, would say only that "less than half a dozen" senators are generally in arrears for more than 90 days.
Unlike the House, which began a pay-as-you-go system this week requiring cash or credit cards, the Senate permits members to charge their meals in the dining rooms. Senate aides and visitors must pay on the spot.
But like House members, delinquent senators have incurred many of their bills by allowing constituent groups to use restaurant facilities or catering services without them paying for them.
"Certainly a major part of the accounts receivable are the groups," Mr. Raines said.
Sen. Wendell H. Ford, D-Ky., chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees restaurant operations, attributed about $60,000 in unpaid meal tabs to catered events, which he said increase in volume near the end of every fiscal year.
"It is obvious from GAO's figures that most of the accounts are paid within 90 days as evidenced by a $323,000 reduction in accounts receivable from fiscal year 1990 to calendar year 1990," he said.
Bills more than 90 days overdue prompt the Capitol architect to send a personal notice to the offending senator, under a policy established by the Senate Rules committee several years ago.
A previous audit shows that there was $373,348 in unpaid meal checks on Sept. 30, 1989, but that collection letters succeeded in cutting the tab to $41,068 by Dec. 31 that year.
The GAO also reported $355,474 in overdue bills at the end of the 1988 fiscal year.