The line began forming Monday afternoon. By last night, more than 75 young people were camped out in front of the Rayburn House Office Building with blankets, backpacks and at least one portable TV, in a scene that looked more like the queue to a rock concert than a congressional committee session.
This morning at 10 a.m., the House Commerce Committee room's doors will open and the first 65 or so people in the line will have won seats inside, where lawmakers plan to advance legislation to overhaul the nation's telecommunications laws.
But most of the line-standers could not care less about the bill. At the door, they will relinquish their places to lobbyists and a bit of Capitol Hill commerce will have been done: The lobbyists will get into the hearing without waiting; their body doubles will have earned $10 an hour holding their places in line for as long as 42 hours.
By day's end, John Likens, 25, and Chris Van Horne, 29, the founders of two companies that dominate the line-standing business in Congress, will have taken in a total of roughly $55,000.
Almost since queues were invented, people have been getting others to do the standing. In Congress, people previously have stuck interns or other junior members of their staffs with the duty. Occasionally, couriers would be hired.
But Likens and Van Horne have made a thriving, stand-alone business of it. Likens's Congressional Services Co. and Van Horne's CVK Group, rivals in the field, each took in more than $250,000 in revenue in 1994, the owners said. They control more than 80 percent of the congressional line-standing business, not through any formal franchise but through vigorous promotion and reputations for reliability.
Not everyone is happy about their success. Lobbyists are starting to complain that the all-nighters are getting out of hand. One-upmanship between the two companies means that the waits are starting earlier and becoming more costly -- on Monday evening, Congressional Services beat CVK by putting 45 people into line a full 42 hours before the hearing.
"Make sure you've got a full checking account before you call," warns Brian Moir, a lobbyist who represents business telephone users. "It's just gotten so ridiculous."
While conceding that all-nighters are lucrative, Likens and Van Horne say they are simply responding to their clients' demands.
"It's a panic situation," Van Horne said. "Particularly with telecommunications, the clients are very adamant about needing to get into a hearing. A lot will say, Do whatever it takes to get me in.' So obviously we do. I think some of the bills they'll be receiving will be pretty staggering."
All-night queues used to be rare. They have occurred several times in the past year, however, particularly with telecommunications, but also with health care and banking issues. During a recent three-day marathon of House telecommunications hearings, many line-standers would reach the door and exchange places with a lobbyist, only to go right back in line for the next day's hearing.
Surrogates say they like the work. "I enjoy being outdoors," said Mike Dunigan, a Congressional Services place-holder who put in 111 hours in the past two weeks. "We're not obnoxious. We're well-behaved. And we're just trying to make a living."
The two companies charge anywhere from $25 to $32 an hour for the service. Line-standers get paid $10 an hour, leaving the rest for profits and the relatively small expenses the companies incur. Those who get seats for today's Commerce committee markup can expect to pay more than $1,100 apiece for the privilege.
Many lobbyists interviewed said they pay it gladly.
"If I go stand in line for a meeting, it's going to cost my client 195 bucks an hour," said John Fithian of the law firm Patton Boggs. "This way, I can go lobby in the morning, grab members and staff while somebody keeps my place in line. It's cost-effective."
Van Horne launched his line-standing business in 1990 after CVK's original mission, to provide summaries of legal depositions, failed to take off. Likens worked for Van Horne as a line-stander and manager, then broke off to form Congressional Services in 1993.
Paying someone to stand in line is legal, though stand-ins must follow certain rules. They must remain outside until a few hours before the hearing. Federal rules against sleeping on the Capitol grounds means they must stay awake during the night, but they can nap during the day. They must remain orderly and they cannot advertise.
There is some wiggle room on the last one, however: CVK's line-standers sit on white seat cushions bearing the company's logo. Congressional Services' employees wear yellow T-shirts bearing the company name.
"As long as they abide by the laws and all the regulations, there is not a need to be rid of this type of activity," said Capitol Police spokesman Dan Nichols.
But Likens's company incurred the wrath of former Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) last year when Brooks learned that Congressional Services had hired a dozen or so Capitol Hill interns as line-standers. The interns were using their congressional identification badges to enter the buildings before opening hours -- thus giving them a competitive edge. The Capitol Police investigated, but took no action. Likens said he has since discontinued the practice. Likens and Van Horne also defend against critics who say their business denies the general public fair access to important events.
"The general public is not really interested in what is going on in the day-to-day operations of Congress," Likens said. "If public interest groups or the general public wish to attend a hearing, we feel they should appear early and line up with the place-holders." CAPTION: Line-standers wait to get into a queue where they willl ensure lobbyists their seats at a Capitol Hill hearing on telecommunications legislation. CAPTION: Tim Leventhal manages to stay awake while holding a spot outside the Rayburn House Office Building. Two firms dominate the line-sitting business. CAPTION: Peter Gray gets $10 an hour plus a bonus of perfect weather to while away the time.