Line-Standing Bonanza

Good Things — Bucks — Come to Those Who Wait

Posted April 28, 2009 at 3:15pm

They come in the early morning hours, taking a seat on the cold floor in the otherwise empty Congressional hallways.

They don’t do much — some might read a magazine, others surf the Internet on a laptop. They will stay until the morning’s business hours, when the hallways become busy with people — mainly lobbyists, of course — hankering to watch the committee hearings that they’ve long been waiting for.

But once the hearings are under way, they are gone.

They are the line-standers, and they’ve become as much a part of daily life on Capitol Hill as the staff in the cafeterias or the Capitol Police officers guarding the campus.

Line-standers are usually easy to spot, typically decked out in casual clothing and holding clipboards or signs so the lobbyists who paid for their services can find them.

They come from all walks of life. Some are former bike messengers who switched gears when deliveries to Capitol Hill ceased; others are students from nearby universities who need to make an extra buck when they aren’t in class.

And despite legislative threats to ban the line-standing practice — which opponents say gives an unfair advantage to lobbyists who can afford the service — business these days is booming.

“It has been very busy lately, I can tell you that,— said John Winslow, who runs the popular service, linestanding.com. “It’s one of those kind of businesses … when things are bad for other people, they tend to be good for us.—

[IMGCAP(1)]Winslow knows the business firsthand, having started as a line-stander on Capitol Hill himself when his bike messenger service started to slow down. Over the years, he watched the practice grow from just a ragtag bunch to thriving industry, and he now organizes his group of line-standers, telling them where to go and offering up helpful advice such as to bring along a book or laptop.

With hearings on hot topics such as the economy, budget, environment and health care expected to dominate the rest of the year, there isn’t likely to be a shortage of line-standing jobs.

And good business means big bucks. While line-standers generally are paid $10 to $20 an hour, the line-standing companies who send them are paid around $100 — give or take, depending on the company — for sending a line-stander for just two hours.

Despite the growth in business, there is one potential threat. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has publicly spoken out against the practice ever since she took office more than two years ago.

Within a few months of her swearing-in, the Missouri Democrat noticed the line-standers, watching as they handed over their places in line to lobbyists who had paid them to wait.

And McCaskill didn’t like what she saw.

“The bottom line is that this is about making sure that lobbyists aren’t buying their way into a public hearing,— said McCaskill spokeswoman Maria Speiser. “The federal government needs to be open and accessible to its people, so when Congressional hearings become a pay-to-play’ situation, it’s worth fixing.—

McCaskill introduced the Get in Line Act in the 110th Congressional session, legislation that would “prohibit the payment of individuals to reserve a place in line for a seat for a lobbyist— at a hearing.

The bill attracted no co-sponsors and never made it out of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

But McCaskill isn’t giving up. Although Speiser admits the economic crisis diverted attention from the Senator’s anti-line-standing efforts, McCaskill intends to introduce her bill again this session, likely in the late spring or early summer.

McCaskill has become a pebble in the shoe of the line-standers, who say their service merely provides an “insurance policy— for people who must attend specific hearings to do their jobs.

Winslow says he doesn’t guarantee his clients will even get a seat — although they usually do — just merely get a leg up on the competition.

“They don’t provide the lobbyists any kind of backroom access,— Winslow said of line-standers. “We don’t stand in line for the Jack Abramoffs of the lobbying industry. We stand in line for the lobbyists who want to go to the hearing.—

Although there are plenty of hearings lobbyists want to attend — everything on the bailout to the ongoing conflicts overseas to music copyright legislation — just a handful of companies provide the bulk of line-standers.

Winslow’s company started as a bike-messenging service, back in the pre-9/11 days when deliverymen were still allowed to take packages to Congressional offices. He recalled that his employees often delivered elaborate gifts to Members from lobbyists.

Expensive bottles of wine were a typical package, Winslow said.

“You name it, A to Z,— Winslow said. “And now it’s ended, as it should. The line-standing is not that.—

Not Steady Work

Line-standers typically are lower- or middle-income people with some understanding of Capitol Hill, Winslow said.

But the work isn’t always steady.

There are 15 core contracted messengers who work for the company Washington Express, according to Paul Hofford, who oversees line-standing services for the company.

Some weeks things are super busy — up to 40 line-standings. Other weeks, there may be only four, he noted.

And Hofford doesn’t believe banning the business of line-standing will do much to ban the practice of line-standing.

“If line-standing companies per se were outlawed, law firms and lobbyists would just send staffers in suits to hold the spots,— he said. “I can’t imagine an attorney or lobbyist waiting in line him [or] herself for a hot hearing that he needs to attend. Either way, someone will be getting paid to hold the spot.—

McCaskill intends to make sure her bill would apply to a lobbyist sending another staffer or paid intern as well, Speiser said. The point: If a lobbyist wants to attend a popular hearing, he’ll have to stand in line himself.

Whether the legislation will eventually rid Capitol Hill of its early morning specialists remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the line-standers will continue to make their daily trips to Capitol Hill — and they welcome the company.

“The fact is, anybody can come up there and wait in line with us,— Winslow said.