It is one of Washington’s more peculiar practices, but most local denizens have long accepted it as a way of life: paying people to wait in line to get prime seats at Capitol Hill hearings.
Line-standing or line-waiting is a small but potent example of how money affects politics in the District of Columbia — how people with resources are able to buy access to lawmakers as they deliberate legislation. The practice, which is expensive but not illegal, has long been a popular one for lobbyists.
Enter Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who is experiencing life as a legislator in Washington for the first time — and blasting her often-critical reactions to her constituents and the world on social media along the way.
On Tuesday, she had just left a hearing on homelessness when she saw people queued in the hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building, waiting in line for a Committee on Financial Services meeting on banking and the marijuana industry, she wrote on social media. Her staff told her they were line-waiters.
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“Shock doesn’t begin to cover it,” she wrote. “Apparently this is a normal practice, and people don’t bat an eye.”
The freshman lawmaker is one of many new District legislators to crash headfirst into the realities of the political world in Washington. But her popularity on social media — she has 3.1 million followers on Twitter — has allowed her to flip the script that normally dictates the relatively circumscribed platforms given to first-time lawmakers.
And instead of projecting expertise, she tweets out first impressions, bringing the public along for the ride.
Shortly after her election in November, she drew a flurry of media coverage after she said saying that she wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment until she began drawing her congressional salary — an unusually personal but effective way to open up a conversation about the cost of living in Washington.
A month later, she turned a normally staid orientation for freshman lawmakers hosted by Harvard’s Kennedy School into another lesson about the way money corrupts the political system: lobbyists and corporate CEOs were at the event, but no representatives from the worlds of activism, community and labor organizing, she noted on Twitter, again drawing more media coverage.
And so it was with line-standing — a once controversial part of life in Washington that has since just become part of the scenery.
But after Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet, which was shared more than 20,000 times, the issue was back in the spotlight.
The practice began in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Meredith McGehee the executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit which works to limit the influence of money on the political system, said in a phone interview. She said it grew in the years after the landmark 1986 tax bill, which lowered top income tax rates, as lobbying by moneyed interests became a more influential force in the District.
Paying people to stand in line only to swoop in right before the hearing started became a way to guarantee a seat in the hearing. Public interest groups often could not afford their own line-standers, so they found another way to compete: unpaid interns, McGehee said.
“There was a period there it was like damn, they’re paying people — and I can’t get in,” she said. “It took two or three years for public interest people to catch up with the K Street people.”
Being in a hearing room is important for public interest groups for the same reasons it is for lobbyists: influence.
“You’re there to watch — someone is watching them,” McGehee said, of the lawmakers. “You’re there and they know you’re there. There is an important watchdog part of it.
The practice was initially the subject of considerable discussion and scrutiny. The Capitol Police opened an investigation in 1994 to probe whether congressional interns and staffers, who are able to access congressional office buildings before they are open to the public, were selling that access as line-waiters, but no action was ever taken.
The Washington Post’s published a front-page story about line-standing the next year, noting enterprising 20-somethings who had started a company for it — and pulled in tens of thousands of dollars in one day. Lobbyists at the time spoke freely about the practice, which at the time went for about $25-$32 an hour.
“Make sure you’ve got a full checking account before you call,” one veteran lobbyist told The Washington Post. “It’s just gotten so ridiculous.”
“If I go stand in line for a meeting, it’s going to cost my client 195 bucks an hour,” another said. “This way, I can go lobby in the morning, grab members and staff while somebody keeps my place in line. It’s cost-effective.”
The Post followed up with an editorial that slammed legislators for allowing “a practice so demeaning to itself and so contemptuous of the public to go on for so long.”
“Seats in an open congressional hearing should not be for sale, pure and simple,” The Post’s editorial said. “Neither should special interests be permitted to use their money to put members of the public at a competitive disadvantage. You wouldn’t think it necessary to restate that these are publicly subsidized proceedings doing the public’s business.”
McGehee told The Post this week that the practice continues to be a way that lobbyists guarantee they get a return on their political contributions.
“If you’ve had made a lot of contributions, you being there and making sure they know who you are is one way to make sure that you get a good return on your investment,” she said.
Many companies continue to offer line-standing services in Washington, like Linestanding.com, though their businesses have been reduced in recent years through the proliferation digital streaming. The site’s director, Michael Glasser, said in a phone interview that the service was available for $48 an hour.
The company will recommend a start time to clients — as many as 24 hours of line-waiting for particularly high-profile hearings, he said. Committee hearings around issues like transportation, finance, commerce and agriculture — ones with significant financial interests — are the most popular.
The company also offers its services for the Supreme Court, where people reportedly paid as much as about $6,000 to ensure admittance for an oral argument on same-sex marriage.
Glasser declined to say how much he paid the linestanders and said the only requirement of the job was that they “show up and do their job.” He said he did not know much about their personal lives or living situations.
“When the government is in business, we’re running,” he said, noting he’d had fifteen orders for line-standers on Tuesday. There are a few restaurants in town that don’t take reservations, like Little Serow and Rose’s Luxury, that have been known to be targets for people paying line-standers.
Ocasio-Cortez had tweeted that the practice was that “Lobbyists pay the homeless,” a bit of shorthand that ignored the companies that contract out workers, whose living situations are not necessarily clear at a glance.
Some reports that have noted that some of the people who line-stand are homeless.
But looks can be deceiving.
“We’re not homeless,” one line-stander told a Washington Post reporter in 2005. That report described the job:
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It’s seasonal work, based on when Congress is in session, and it’s last-minute and usually at most three days a week, since members like to take long weekends. But over the years the old- timers have gotten to know the halls of government well. They know the tunnels and the shortcuts, which hearing rooms are bigger than others, and which ones will be a squeeze.
Some of this institutional knowledge was honed during the glory days of line-standing. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the line-standers say, there was less supervision on the part of Capitol Police, and competition was fierce. Smart line-standers would bypass their colleagues by entering the office buildings through less-used entrances. There would be dashes through underground tunnels, sometimes ending with headfirst dives, or so the lore goes. One company went so far as to recruit college track runners.
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Ocasio-Cortez is not the only freshman lawmaker to be surprised by the practice.
Former Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, took issue with it after she too had stumbled upon it in the corridors of Capitol Hill after she took office in 2007.
“This is the people’s government, and these should be the people’s hearings,” McCaskill told The Post at the time. “I have no problem with lobbyists being in hearings, but they shouldn’t be able to buy a seat.”
McGehee said she had a similar reaction when she first heard about line-standing decades ago, but said they’ve since become an accepted part of life on Capitol Hill.
“The people who have the most resources and then get the most access are the ones that can afford to pay line sitters,” she said. “It’s a system that advantages people without money.”