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The Line Starts Here

There is Robert Herzog, 48, whom someone labels the ninja, because of his mystical immobility. Herzog has a blue sleeping bag from Goodwill onto which he has sewn arms, and once he wriggles into it and pulls the flap over his head, he can sit silently in his chair for long stretches. When he does move, it is to clip thick stacks of coupons. This is his only job.

There is Charles "Pops" Makal, a retired technician for Washington Gas. He has been smoking since he was 14. He wears a baseball cap that says Jesus. Makal remarks that his birthday is coming up, on Feb. 2, and is surprised to find out that this particular date is the very next day. He's lost track of the weeks, he says. He will be 53, or maybe 52. Which is it?

Professional line standers enter the Hart Senate Office Building, where they will claim their labors' reward: a warm seat to turn over to a lobbyist or other power broker. (Photos Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

He says his birth date aloud to clear his head. "Will I be 52 or 53?"

"Hey," he says to the crowd generally. "How old will I be on the 2nd if I was born in '53?"

From beneath a blue sleeping bag, the muffled voice of the ninja says, "52! 52!"

You wonder how many birthdays have been lost and found on this sidewalk.

The Competition

Line-standing companies tend to go by abbreviations (CVK, QMS, CSC, JEH), which makes them sound at least as obscure as most federal agencies.

The people who run these companies are often bad-mouthing one another, and when they're not doing that they're copying one another. Some of the bosses have recon people, who sweep past the line-standing hub in the days before a hearing to see if any rivals have set up shop. If things get tight and there aren't enough bodies, some bosses have been known to recruit homeless people -- or at least, so says the competition.

But the line-standing community is no more competitive than the lobbyists themselves. In the last few minutes before a hearing or legislative markup, suits without places in line can get desperate. There have been stories about lobbyists lying to get coveted spots, so some line-standers ask their clients for business cards as proof of identity when they hand over their spots outside hearing rooms.

One man recalls a run-in with a line-stander in the early '90s. He's a 20-year energy lobbyist who runs a small company, and like a lot of people in his field, he doesn't want his name associated with this topic. ("It kind of fuels the negative image of lobbyists as throwing money around," he says.)

Anyway, he'd arrived before a markup and found himself far back in line. A line-stander whispered that he could give him a spot for a fee. Maybe the line-stander was saving more than one spot, or maybe he was just freelancing, a space broker for hire.

The energy lobbyist went into the men's room and gave the guy some money. He can't remember how much. Maybe $100.

"I felt like I was doing a drug transaction," he says.

This is about much more than hearing testimony. This is about power, and the way things work in Washington, and keeping them that way. This is about who gets seen and who gets whose ear. Hearings are sometimes shown in overflow rooms or on the Internet, but for many lobbyists, a virtual presence is not good enough. If lobbyists want to network, they'd better be in the room. If they want to take notes comfortably, they'd better be sitting. If they want to be noticed by staffers, they'd better be sitting up front. There are subtle cues to notice, like who's whispering excitedly to whom. There is cachet.

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