Waiting for Good Dough

Published on
The Politico.com

Waiting for Good Dough

Lina Lerer

The click of heels against the marble floors echoes through the halls as staffers hurry to happy hour, yoga or home. It's 6:30 p.m., and the entire Dirksen Senate Office Building is rushing.

Everyone except Hans Scheltema, who leans against the wall in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee room.0726 07

Scheltema, a hulking man in a blue Hawaiian shirt, isn't going anywhere fast. In T-shirts and sweat pants, Scheltema and about 20 others flip through newspapers and talk about nothing. Mostly, though, they are just waiting, as they will be for another 16 hours.

They are the patient, the uncomfortable, the poorly paid. They are line-standers.

Like the Capitol Police or Bullfeathers bartenders, line-standers make their living off Congress and those who lobby it.

Hearings are crowded places, filled with legislators, staffers and press. Only a few spaces are reserved for the general public, which includes lobbyists, lawyers and other political professionals.

Line-standing gives the professional influence-peddlers an edge over the lowly academics and public advocates.

The more money the client pays, the earlier the line-standers arrive and the better the chance of nabbing a front-row spot.

It's not uncommon for firms to pay line-standing companies thousands of dollars, a fraction of which trickles down to the actual person waiting in line. The process is money in politics personified: Wealth gets a seat in the room.

It's a fully developed industry, complete with managers, wranglers and dozens of part-time employees. Two companies, CVK and Congressional Services Co., dominate. CVK is the oldest, with many of the richest clients.

The line-standing business is intimately woven into the fabric of Congress. Company bank books ebb and flow with the congressional record.

"In 1994, everything ballooned for Congress, and business was great," said John Likens, founder of Congressional Services. "The more things don't get passed, the better for us." The line-standing business exploded in the mid-1990s, as the number of lobbyists swelled.

In general, Likens' firm charges $38 to $50 an hour and pays the actual standers $11 to $15 an hour. Since it's not uncommon for line-standers to wait 50 or even 72 hours, the costs can be thousands of dollars.

Webcasting has put a slight dent in the business as more lobbyists watch early hearings remotely. So did post-Sept. 11 security measures prohibiting deliveries; several messaging companies then switched to line-standing, increasing competition in the industry.

Likens fears another terrorist attack would lead to completely prohibitive security measures. "The minute they close access, it will put every line-standing business out of business," he said.

Some wouldn't miss it. "The one surprising aspect of the lucrative line-standing business on Capitol Hill ... is that Congress has allowed a practice so demeaning to itself and so contemptuous of the public to go on for so long," The Washington Post editorial board wrote in 1995.

Nine years later, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times slammed the practice as a "stark reminder of just how far removed everyday citizens have become from the political process."

Still, line-standers continue to wait, largely unnoticed by staffers and Congress. The best of them act as underground geographers of Capitol Hill. Dispatching line-standers is an inexact science, a back-of-the-envelope accounting of location, witnesses and topic.

A good line-stander knows the size of every room and the approximate number of available seats. Witnesses and their entourages are factored into the equation along with the hearing's sponsor.

New Congresses, line-standers say, are always more chaotic; rookies can't control the line, often causing a full-on sprint into the room.

Back in Dirksen, no line-stander is sprinting anywhere. Like neighbors on brownstone stoops, they sit and gossip about the job, the hours and, of course, politics.

The general consensus is that line-standing is in equal parts a good and mind-numbing job. The pay is higher than minimum wage, and it can nicely supplement a regular job or Social Security check.

For people like Scheltema, it's a full-time job. The independent contractor brings in about $50,000 annually working for two companies. It's barely enough to cover his share of a two-bedroom place in Cardozo, buy gas for his 1987 BMW and support his pet macaw, Pookie.

Standing in this line for Verizon should make him $3,000, a fee significantly higher than the standard pay.

Scheltema is a congressional junkie, a bit of a hustler and a line-standing guru. Rookie standers call him asking for advice. The 39-year-old former bike messenger started line-standing in 2001, after an accident left him half-blind.

He can now rattle off the size of every room and every dirty trick used to cut ahead. Every day he reads The Politico and CQ Daily ("when I can scrounge it") to get the scoop on upcoming hearings. Scheltema even has a phrase about line-standing in his rap: "K Street's the place that's giving me grace."

Line-standers are a loose clan of retirees, bike messengers, students and eccentrics. Most have permanent homes, but a few don't. And just like any workplace, not everyone gets along. "It's more simmering rage, passive-aggressive barbs and out-and-out hatred," Scheltema said.

But they all respect the line. To cut back on chaos, the line-standers create their own list, a clipboard account of everyone's spot.

If they need a bathroom break or some food, they know their spot is secured by a sign marked with their company's name. If they're gone too long, though, they'll get whited out from the list. "Quid pro quo is the way to go," Scheltema said.

The list is most important at night, because security guards kick the standers out. So they all bed down outside the building or in their cars.

The trick is being a good sleeper, said one CVK stander who'd been waiting in lines nonstop for four days. "I slept through 9/11, and I live a mile from the Capitol," he boasted. "I woke up and thought it was a bad horror movie on TV."

Around 4 a.m., a new set of standers arrives and the line gets longer. By 8 a.m., there's no hope of getting into the room.

The line-standers start contemplating one of their biggest mysteries: Why do the lobbyists shell out the money?

"They can't say anything or even raise their hand," said one CVK employee, who refused to give a name.

"It's about the face value," mused Zach Mason, a stander in bike messengers' clothes.

By 9 a.m., the line -- now about 60 people long -- snakes around the corner, far past the hearing room. After the first 25, it's all staffers and lobbyists either too poor or too disinterested to hire standers. Capitol employees set up a velvet rope to separate the line from the rest of the hallway.

Finally, after 53 hours of waiting, the real action begins. The lobbyists start arriving, kissing each other on the cheek and shaking hands. Managers from line-standing companies rush through the hall, matching the lobbyists with their spots.

Periodically, staffers come out and evaluate the crowd. Eventually, one announces an overflow room with a video hookup. Several at the end of the line head over. Others mill around, still hoping to get inside.

Within 45 minutes, the line has completely changed composition. The tired and ratty are replaced with suits holding coffee. The line-standers wait, now outside the velvet rope, just one more minute. Then it's down the hall to Room 215, on to the next job, the next line and the never-ending wait.


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