A Job That's On the Line

Seat savers mark their spots in line and in Capitol Hill hearings for paying lobbyists.
Seat savers mark their spots in line and in Capitol Hill hearings for paying lobbyists. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Comes now the newbie, the freshman senator, the bean counter with a nose for following the money. And at the moment she's following it -- not big money, not earmark money -- down a marbled hallway on the Hill to the poor schlubs who are paid $10 an hour to stand in line. In the morning, well-paid, sharp-suited lobbyists arrive and glide into the Senate hearing rooms, taking choice seats that the schlubs saved for them by waiting all night.

Money polluting the rivers of democracy once again!

"I think it is offensive!" decries Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). She stands yesterday in the corridor of the Russell Senate Office Building, and the poor schlubs, the line-standers, watch from a respectful distance as she threatens to legislate their jobs away.

"It's capitalism and democracy," one of them says. "What do you do?"

Somebody's got a demand, somebody's got a supply. This is how America works, right?

Washington has a lot of bizarre practices, and it often takes an outsider to recognize them. Line-standing has been around for 15 years, and by now people on the Hill hardly see it anymore -- hardly see the people with folding chairs and blankets waiting outside congressional office buildings in the middle of the night, then lining up to shuffle into the building in the mornings, and setting up camp again outside hearing rooms, where they nap and talk (sometimes to themselves) and wait for their clients to arrive. And when the clients come, perky and caffeinated, having slept all night in real beds, they relieve the line-standers and nab seats in the hearing rooms -- the closer to the dais of power, the better.

Ah, but McCaskill has come to the corridors of power with the fresh eyes of a former state auditor.

"I was walking along the hallway to the Judiciary Committee" about two months ago, "and I said what's up with these people? . . . Who's paying them?"

If the lobbyists want good seats, she says, let them line up and wait themselves. Public hearings are not concerts at Verizon Center, and everyone should have the same chance of getting a front-row seat. These are public hearings, after all, even if the public doesn't tend to come to these things much, hearings being kind of boring.

"This is the people's government, and these should be the people's hearings," McCaskill says, holding forth in the hallway while reporters crowd around. Some of the line-standers are sleeping. "I have no problem with lobbyists being in hearings, but they shouldn't be able to buy a seat."

Now, the line-standers, they need the cash. They don't know a lot about their clients or about what happens in the hearings. They don't know a lot about the bill McCaskill will introduce a few hours later.

"I just heard about it," says line-stander Jay Moglia, who looks slightly stunned when the reporters crowd around him and brandish their notebooks. He says he understands the argument behind banning his job, but here's the thing: His day job as a courier -- the one he loves -- isn't cutting it.

"Bike messenger rates haven't changed in 16 years," Moglia says.

Line-standing, on the other hand, is not a job he loves, but it's a job he needs. He's been waiting for six hours, since 3:30 in the morning. One of his colleagues left the business recently. Couldn't take the lifestyle anymore -- all those wee hours.

Moglia has questions he wants to ask the senator from Missouri: Who's going to police this? Won't there be loopholes, and in that case, will someone else just wind up taking his job? Aren't there always?

"I missed in detail what she was saying," says William McCall, who holds a sign for a line-standing company called CVK Group.

"That you're not the public," says another guy, who gives his name as "Bush, George," and seems disgusted with the premise of the ban. "You can get paid for doing anything. It's America."

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