Critics call the 'linestanding' business another example of the access to Congress that well-heeled lobbyists can buy, but non-profit groups also use the service.
US lobbyists criticised for 'linestanding'
WASHINGTON // Ronald Florez opened his bleary eyes amid a jostling gaggle of professional lobbyists waiting to enter a Congressional hearing on education. He had just managed to get a few hours' sleep in a plastic chair while waiting outside the House of Representatives' hearing room all Monday night. Mr Florez is a paid "linestander", holding a place in the queue on behalf of lobbyists who need to grab one of the scarce seats at hearings but do not want to stay up all night for it.
The linestanding market has grown in recent years and critics believe it illustrates an unhealthy, even corrupt, relationship between commerce and politics in the US capital. Others say the business is an entrepreneurial response to a genuine need for access. "The lobbyists are trying to make change and whether it's for good or bad is not for me to say, but they are also just trying to make a living," said Mr Florez, 28. "What's really frustrating for them is not getting into these hearings and I don't know why they're not held in bigger rooms."
Mr Florez works for a company called linestanding.com, which arose out of a bicycle courier service that hit slowing demand and needed work for its employees, said John Winslow, its director. E-mail and the ability to send large documents as attachments had hit the courier services hard. Then messengers were banned from many government buildings after the anthrax attacks of 2001, when a former government scientist sent letters containing the spores to two senators and several media offices.
"Around this time the Washington lobbyists came into the ascent," Mr Winslow said. "We always did provide a linestanding service, but then you had these big hearings following the collapse of Enron and MCI and also after asbestos litigation in which billions of dollars were at stake. "Things have not slowed down since then and we now get half our profits from linestanding and the other half from our courier service."
Financial turmoil and the push towards greater regulation by the Obama administration have again put the spotlight on Washington, where legislators and lobbyists are jostling on a host of issues, from healthcare reform to consumer protection in finance. Government bailouts following the collapse of the US auto industry also provided more work for Mr Winslow's company, which was hired by one of the "big three" carmakers - Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.
"One of the big three came to me and said we need 40 people in line tonight for one of the big hearings," he said. "That's when I went to Oliver, who works for me and used to be homeless, and asked him to go out and find me extra people. He found them in the homeless shelter he used to go to and it's great being able to help them get work." Mr Winslow's linestanders are paid between US$15 and $18 an hour, which compares favourably with the federal minimum wage of $6.55. Most of his employees are bicycle couriers, students or retired people.
To critics who say there should be restrictions to prevent lobbyists with big chequebooks from gaining the advantage at hearings, Mr Winslow pointed out that non-profit organisations have also used his service. "The fact is that many of these hearing rooms are just too small to accommodate everyone who wants to attend and my service is predicated on the limited number of seats. "We don't do anything that excludes anyone else," he said. "We've had many not-for-profit clients involved with the environment, for example, who also need to get into these hearings."
One non-profit client was the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), which used his service to get a seat at a hearing on a student aid act, part of President Barack Obama's plan to make college affordable to a greater number of students. Just before the hearing started on Tuesday morning there was a queue of at least 70 people snaking around the corridor of the Rayburn Congressional office building. At least 25 of them were professional linestanders working for Mr Winslow or one of his competitors and were easily recognised by their casual clothing. They were replaced by formally dressed lobbyists and advocates when the line started to file into the hearing room.
Hans Scheltema waited 12 hours alongside Mr Florez before giving his place in line to a COE director. He defended his job as a vital service that helped to keep the wheels of democracy greased. "In a way, it shows that the system is working," he said. "In the past, many political deals were cut in the evening over happy hour." firstname.lastname@example.org