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Eric Hopkins paced up and down a hallway in the Dirksen Senate Office Building two weeks ago in front of 25 people who were standing in line for a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Few of them knew what the public hearing was about. That’s because they were hired by LineStanding.com, which paid them to reserve spots for lawyers, lobbyists, union members and anyone else willing to spend $32 an hour to secure a place in line. Hopkins works for the company as a coordinator. He makes sure that the line standers show up because if they are late, the company could lose spots, especially if the hearing is popular.
The business of line standing got some attention in March when The New York Times mentioned the practice in a piece about people trying to get tickets to watch the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on same-sex marriage. The mainstream media writes about line standing every few years, but only during landmark cases and hearings. The truth is that line standing goes on much of the time. It happens almost every day on Capitol Hill and some people are worried that it has weakened the influence the public has on committee hearings.
Line standing “verges on the absurd,” Hopkins concedes. “The German, Japanese, Aussie [press]—they love us because they think this is crazy, because it is crazy.”
Hopkins is cynical about the purpose of the business. But others see it as more than absurd—it’s malicious, they contend. It shuts out regular folk from what are supposed to be public hearings, they argue, while allowing big businesses and law firms to overrun them with their own people.
Hopkins was a line stander himself in the 1990s, when the business took off. For a long time it was bike messengers who would scramble through the doors of the Cannon House Office Building and the Senate’s Dirksen and Hart buildings to save spaces in line for others. People started to organize a business out of the new trend, and in a couple of years a few small, informal line standing companies sprouted up around Capitol Hill.
Three main enterprises devoted to waiting in line emerged as legitimate businesses in the following decade: LineStanding.com, Washington Express and CVK.
Today, these companies shy away from using messengers and instead rely on the elderly, students and the homeless to be on call. Many of the line standers, Hopkins says, are recruited from the Community for Creative Non-Violence, Washington D.C.’s largest homeless shelter.
There has been some pushback in recent years from politicians who see line standing as a blemish on the democratic process. Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and former Rep. Barney Frank have criticized the practice. McCaskill formally addressed the issue in 2007 with a proposal to get rid of line standing on the Hill.
“We need to make sure this place is available to the people who own it and that’s the people of this country, not the lobbyists,” she said at the time.
Despite Congress’ explicit declaration that hearings ought to be “open to the public,” it hasn’t chosen to investigate the problems McCaskill pointed out. Members say that it doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction, even though it takes place in their buildings. McCaskill’s proposal never became law.
It has been an unwritten rule for decades that seats are given to the public on a first come, first served basis. But since there are no rules that specifically prohibit the practice of line standers—perhaps because politicians could not have imagined something like it 30 years ago—businesses continue to employ mostly the poor to ease the lives of the rich without facing any penalties.
In an open letter to McCaskill, LineStanding.com owner Mark Gross rebuked the senator’s proposal, arguing that he’d simply found a way to make some extra money in our capitalist economy.
“Henry Ford used the assembly line to improve efficiency and create an enormous industry. Each worker on the line was responsible for his/her specific task. We provide linestanders, and they do that job well,” he wrote. “Division of labor makes America a great place to work. Linestanding may seem like a strange practice, but it’s ultimately an honest job in a free-market economy.”
A line stander named Teresa at the health and education hearing Hopkins was patrolling said that she’d been doing the work “since God”—a long time, apparently. But not all line standers are so lucky. Companies have many recruits on the back burner and often give workers less than a day’s notice when they’re needed. The job goes to whoever responds first. Line standing is an unreliable source of income for most and securing a gig still means only two or three hours of work at a time.
Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of anti-war group Code Pink who protested the confirmation hearing of CIA director John Brennan and then most recently interrupted President Obama’s counterterrorism speech May 23, has been condemning the line standing practice for years along with her colleague Tighe Barry.
“Now,” Benjamin says, seats are reserved “for people with the biggest pockets.” Barry adds that “people with limited access to their representatives,” which usually also means those with less money, “will be gone.”
Benjamin and Barry don’t see line standing as a conspiracy. They don’t believe that large corporations are actively trying to exclude the public.
The harm done from line standing “is not on purpose at all,” Barry says. “These companies are just making money and the line standers are just trying to make a buck. It’s just a business. But the result is keeping the public out.”