The line-standers are out all night on Capitol Hill, looking homeless. "But we're not homeless," one of them says; just trying to keep warm in ski caps and puffy coats.

Waiting 10, 20, 30 hours outside the House or the Senate, holding a place in line so some well-pressed lobbyist can sit upfront at a congressional hearing and bat eyes at all the right people -- this is democracy, or something like it. More importantly, it's a job.

We're talking public hearings, but John Q. would have trouble getting into many of them if he ever showed up. He'd be too far back in line, assuming he didn't have $35 an hour to pay a line-standing company, or the gumption to play line-stander himself.

When the hearing rooms are small and the demand high, the line-stander comes in. He's a warm body, a hologram. He is a young fellow, with sleepy ambitions, or an older fellow, treading water, or some guy who talks obscenely and makes no sense at all. He waits on the sidewalk and when the congressional office buildings open in the morning, with staffers clickety-clacking past, he takes his place outside a hearing room and drops his puffy coat on those hallowed floors.

By late morning, when the hearing starts, he is gone. He is a spot-staker, a space broker, a paid idler. He is the pause button on Washington, keeping power in its proper place throughout the night.

"There's no expertise and there's no commodity," says Jay Moglia, a line-stander. He works dayside as a bike courier, as a lot of them do, and he takes pride in that work, which calls for strength, training, bravado.

Not line-standing. In this job, there's only the ability to stand up. There is no such thing as a natural. No mother ever senses her child's innate talent for line-standing.

The line-stander never sees his product. He fries no nuggets and rakes no yards; no shorn hairs fall on the toe of his shoe while someone breathes into the mirror, Beautiful. The world is the same when his job is done, only the sky is lighter and some suit is making the money that some other suit was making last week.

The line-stander is a two-foot-square space on a sidewalk, a cipher, a proxy, a powerless stand-in for a figure of great power.

But at night, when the cops aren't hassling him, he owns this place.

The Line in Winter

Line-standing in the winter is a matter of preparation: three sweaters, two pairs of socks. Park nearby and sleep in your car. To stay awake, eat more. Drink less. One line-stander tells about a colleague who got arrested for relieving himself in public. Two hours with the cops, or something like that, and all because the guy didn't go to Union Station.

The indignity. Most of us know our time is worth less than someone else's, but line-standing brings that fact emphatically home. A line-standing company may pay a worker $10 an hour, $15 if he's a manager. He's holding a spot for a lobbyist or lawyer or legislative assistant whose sleep is much more valuable, who wants the luxury of showing up half an hour before the hearing. Some of the clients just want into the hearing room; others are very particular about getting good seats. The closer they are to the action, the more important they feel. They're players, or want to be.

The line-standers understand the hierarchy of Capitol Hill.

"You really find out the true colors of people," says Arsenio Bartolome, who goes by Chito, one Tuesday evening. He and a buddy, both bike couriers, are first in line; they've been here since 5 a.m. for a hearing that starts tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. They work for a company called QMS. Behind Chito, there are 10 or so line-standers on the sidewalk of Second and C streets NE. They've come for three different hearings. Sometimes they work elsewhere in the District, standing in line for concerts or at the Supreme Court. They've brought folding chairs but they stand in clusters, teasing one another and smoking and looking rougher than the folks you expect to see around the Hart Building. Truth is, they're friendlier than your typical lobbyist. Pedestrians in wool coats squeeze past silently.

"They walk by and they don't say excuse me or anything," Chito says. "They'll be rude to you. But if we were wearing a suit and everything else, I think they'd treat us a little differently."

"There's no thinking about it," says Errol James, standing next to him. He works for a company called CVK.

"But it's good to be the underdog," Chito says. "You meet all the senators and the congressmen. You don't meet them, but you see them."

"They're right there," James says.

"I remember Eleanor Holmes Norton," the District's delegate in the House of Representatives, Chito says. "I worked on her for years, just saying hello to her. And she used to come by and be all crabby and stuff like that. So I started to change my way of approaching her by saying, 'You're wearing some really nice stuff today,' and she would just brighten up and be all cheerful and stuff."

Chito is a charmer. He's been line-standing since 2001. He knows Capitol Hill cops by name and he's friendly with the guy in a blue uniform whose breast stitching says "Garage Div." He plays sweet to the Senate cafeteria cashier when he passes through with his $3.40 egg special. He has shoulder-length black hair and a black ski cap with the Rolling Stones tongue on it. He is 42. He smokes and paces with the energy of a salmon jumping upstream. He says he was born in the back of a cab. At night, when the Hill is quiet and the line-standers are the only ones out here -- laughing, singing -- Chito gives his colleagues nicknames, and talks about the lore of line-standing.

There's a lot of turnover in the line-standing business, but there are also people who've been doing this, off and on, for 10, 15 years. (Line-standing companies have been around since at least the early '90s.) 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.

Nowadays, there's no running. Everyone goes in the same entrance. The order of the line is sacrosanct.

"Now, we're civilized people," Chito says.

This is a true community, forged in the dark, stitched of artists and retirees, eccentrics and lapsed dreamers. Mostly men, a few women. In the summer, Chito says, they'll bring out remote-controlled cars. They used to play music, someone says, but now the cops don't allow it. This little slice of sidewalk is theirs, a place to commiserate and catch up, to talk about living -- literally -- in the shadow of power. Sometimes it is the line-standers vs. the cops and sometimes it's the line-standers vs. the suits, but always, even when they quibble, the line-standers are in this together. Who else would understand them and their odd, moonlit existence? Their time is someone else's money. You wouldn't put this job on a resume, but it's closer to power than many of us get.

There is Chito's friend Elly, whose real name is Larry Jarrett, a mellow courier who plays the straight man to Chito's ebullience. There is Chito's wife, Christine Lilyea-Bartolome, 24, a line-stander-courier-musician, who will later be bringing Chito and Elly spaghetti from home.

There is Errol James, 34, who has been line-standing for eight years but says he has bigger plans. He hands over a business card that says "Errol 'The Fiff' James, C.E.O." He has started an online travel business, but he doesn't have the online part yet.

There is Teresa Filson, who has a military background and a sharp manner, who tells everyone to stop cussing. She's known as the mama, because, as one colleague puts it, "she keeps the children in line."

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?

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.

"You want to be able to give your client the first-class treatment," says Gary Hymel, the chief lobbyist with Hill & Knowlton, who uses a courier-and-line-standing company called LaserShip. "You get eye-to-eye contact. . . . This is reinforcing that you're really interested and care."

Caring is expensive, but not caring might be more so.

The Doors Open

By 6:29 a.m. Wednesday morning, the line has grown to 50.

Mama Filson leads the line-standers from their spots on the sidewalk to the entrance of the Hart Building, like a mother duck. When the doors open at 7, the line-standers head through Hart to Dirksen. Outside of room 226 -- "Asbestos: the Mixed Dust and FELA issues" -- Chito and his wife and Elly set up camp. Chito takes off his shoes and stretches out his feet. Behind him, the line-standers fan out down the hall and around the corner. In these sober halls, their eccentricities seem more pronounced.

There is one man with a scruffy gray beard and an American flag do-rag who sits alone and drinks from a coffee cup and talks to himself. He says his name is William McKinley Bridges. "What's your name, angel dust?" he asks.

Robert Herzog, minus the blue sleeping bag, wears burgundy pants, a teal shirt, a yellow tie and a gray jacket, and his hair is nearly down to his chest. He talks to the guy behind him in line.

"Sarcoma," says the guy behind him.

"Carcinoma," Herzog says.

"Carcinoma," says the other guy, agreeing.

"Leukemia," Herzog says.

The closer the hearing gets, the jumpier Chito becomes. With 30, 20 minutes to go, everyone gets out signs that say the names of the companies they are waiting for. The lobbyists approach, scanning the signs. The line-standers have grown somber and quiet. They're place-holders again, disappearing into themselves.

Except for Chito. He paces by the hearing room door like a colt. A handful of well-dressed people brush by and peek their heads in the door, which makes Chito nervous. He doesn't know who they are -- staffers, lobbyists, press -- but if they're lobbyists, he doesn't want them sneaking inside and taking seats that he and his brethren have claimed.

"Yo-yo-yo, are you all press?" he says. "What's going on here?"

"Are you running the committee or what?" says a well-dressed fellow, retreating from the door. He looks annoyed.

"No, man, I've been been waiting out here since 5 in the morning," Chito says.

"Good for you," the man says snippily, and walks away.

Chito looks pleased. Suits don’t scare him. He belongs here.