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January|February 2004
The Queue Crew By Brian Montopoli
Shark Hunt By Dashka Slater
The Right to Dry By Dusty Horwitt
Peruvian Guilty By Jason Felch
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By Stephen Gillers

The Queue Crew

Waiting in line for a living.

By Brian Montopoli

ON CAPITOL HILL, a placeholder is someone paid by the hour to wait in line. When legislative committees hold hearings, they reserve seats for Congressional staffers, for the press, and for the general public. The general-public seats are the only ones available to the so-called influence peddlers, the Washington lawyers and lobbyists whose livelihood depends on their ability to influence legislation. These seats are first come, first served, which is where the placeholders (also called "stand-ins" or "linestanders") come in. Since most lobbyists and lawyers seeking to rub shoulders with lawmakers don't have time to wait in line themselves, they pay others to do it for them.

Rather than use an independent contractor, most influence peddlers secure placeholders through one of the two companies that control about 80 percent of the market: Congressional Services Company and the CVK Group, both of which have rosters of on-call placeholders at the ready. Most of the time, placeholders are asked to wait for just a few hours, often arriving around 5 a.m. to wait for hearings scheduled for 10 a.m. If seats are in great demand, however, placeholders can be asked to get in line several days in advance. Congressional Services charges its clients $32 to $40 per hour for each placeholder, and the placeholders themselves make $10 to $15 an hour.

It isn't always the sexiest events that require the longest waits. Last fall, for instance, the line for a House Financial Services Committee hearing on two bills regulating the secondary mortgage market started forming days before the hearing was scheduled to begin. The committee is notorious for skimping on seats for the general public, so, while demand wasn't terribly high, supply was low. Though the hearing was scheduled for Wednesday morning, the placeholding companies, whose judgment clients usually trust, decided to get their people in line by Sunday night.

I visited the placeholders the day before the hearing outside the Rayburn House Office Building. For the sake of logistics and appearances, the lines usually form outdoors and stay there until a few hours before a hearing. Today, the placeholders had been asked to wait at the corner of Washington and D Streets, next to a service entrance around the corner from the Rayburn building's main entrance. I arrived with John Hazakis—his co-workers call him "Greek"—a former placeholder who rose through the ranks to become a manager at Congressional Services. Hazakis, who is 33, began working lines in college at George Washington University, when he and a bunch of his friends answered an ad that said they could make $10 an hour while reading, listening to music, or playing cards. He has stayed in the industry ever since, transitioning from waiting in lines to managerial duties while earning his master's degree in business administration, also from GW.

When Hazakis was a placeholder, in the years before the 1998 shooting that left two Capitol police officers dead and the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was a different business. Placeholders were subject to fewer regulations and had something of a cowboy mentality. John Likens, who founded Congressional Services in 1993 after working at CVK, ran cross-country in college, and he used to sprint down the long hallway connecting the Dirksen and Russell Senate buildings in an effort to snag first place in line. In a close race, a headfirst slide was not uncommon.

Today, however, most placeholders are not nimble students out to earn a little spending money but older men and women trying to make ends meet. Jim Keegan is one of the "Van Gogh veterans," a group of placeholders discovered by Congressional Services in 1998 when they were standing in line to get coveted free tickets to the Van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. When I met Keegan, a balding, genial man in his late 40s with a mustache and discolored front teeth, he was reclining in a blue foldout chair at the front of the line outside the Rayburn Building. As we talked, he spilled potato salad onto his shirt, which he flicked off absentmindedly, leaving behind a series of stains. "When you spend weeks at a time together and don't take showers, you can't worry too much about appearances," he said.

Sitting next to Keegan was Robert Herzog, who had brown tinted glasses, a thin face, and long brown hair that flowed out from beneath a Congressional Services baseball cap. Herzog was patching up his camping backpack with a needle and thread. When I asked him what he talks about while he waits, he said, "I don't talk. I read." At the moment he was reading a New Yorker magazine profile of the fashion designer John Galliano. Keegan used to work in a lab at the National Institutes of Health, a job that he said became too boring for him to endure. Now he said he has time to pursue his interests and get paid. "I'll probably make $2,000 to $3,000 in a good month," he said. "That's more than I made at my old job."

There is a collegial atmosphere among the placeholders—if you leave to go get something to eat, you aren't going to lose your spot—but simple tasks like going to the bathroom present challenges. During the day, placeholders can go into the Rayburn Building, but after hours they have to make their way over to the public bathrooms at Union Station. Getting sleep is also a problem. Since the lines form on public sidewalks, placeholders are technically not allowed to sit down, and though the Capitol Hill police often ignore them, there are evenings when an overzealous officer will repeatedly wake them up and tell them to stand.

And if it rains? "You get wet," Hazakis said.

THE CAPITOL HILL POLICE and the elements aren't the only enemies of placeholders. In 1995, The Washington Post ran an editorial decrying the industry, calling it "demeaning to [Congress] and . . . contemptuous of the public." In 1995, Representative Gerry E. Studds of Massachusetts unsuccessfully tried to add an amendment to a telecommunications measure that would have banned the practice at some Commerce Committee hearings. Once, a group upset over banking regulations brought busloads of protesters to a hearing, only to discover that they wouldn't be able to get in, thanks to the placeholders. A scuffle ensued, but the placeholders held their ground.

In general, however, most staffers and politicians don't even notice the placeholders they pass on their way to work. The service has become an integral part of doing business on Capitol Hill. "If I'm willing to pay somebody to stand in line, what's the problem?" said Heidi Wagner, the senior director for government affairs for the pharmaceutical company Genentech. "It's good for me, good for the company, and good for the people who get jobs by doing it. It's not like Joe Tourist wants to get into these hearings—it's usually just a bunch of lobbyists." Wagner has used Congressional Services more than 50 times, and has always gotten into the hearing of her choice, except for once, when she showed up late.

Since hearings can be rescheduled or closed to the public at the last minute, the placeholding services insist on getting paid regardless of whether their clients succeed in getting in. Keegan and Herzog's long wait, for example, ended before they could pass along their spots to their clients: The housing hearing was cancelled because of partisan infighting, and after two days and 20 hours of waiting, the placeholders were sent home on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

The next morning, however, after showers and a change of clothes, many of them were back, this time to wait for a healthcare hearing before the Commerce Committee. When I arrived at the Rayburn Building at 9 a.m., over 70 people were waiting to get into the hearing, and by 10, when it was scheduled to start, there were more than 200. The line began around the corner from the hearing room and snaked past elevator banks and Congressional offices. At the front were mostly placeholders, among them a bored-looking young man with red sneakers and a hat worn sideways and a woman in her late 30s wearing a frayed sweatshirt that read "OJ SIMPSON: JUICE ON THE LOOSE."

On this morning, only a handful of people were waiting in the press line to get into the hearing. One of them, a woman in a blue suit, blushed and smiled when a Capitol police officer asked her for her credentials, saying she didn't realize she was in the wrong line. "She says she doesn't know," Hazakis said. "But she knows." It's common for lobbyists to try to sneak into a hearing by standing in the press line or by cutting in the public line. Hazakis said one of the hardest parts of the job is telling these people, often partners at law firms or high-powered lobbyists, to go to the back of the line.

Thirty minutes before the hearing began, the clients started showing up. The placeholders were identified by placards or by assistant managers who worked the line. A bald white man in his 40s with a yellow tie and an expensive suit took his spot and thanked his placeholder. (Congressional rules prohibit tipping.) Just before 10 a.m., the doors to the committee room opened. About 50 people were let into the hearing, including all those who had used placeholders. Once the room had reached capacity, two committee staffers begin turning away desperate lobbyists who hadn't made the cut and whose entreaties to be let in were uniformly unsuccessful. Down the hall, more than 100 people in suits continued to wait, although the hearing had already begun. I asked one of the committee staffers at the door why there was still a line.

"Well, we let a few people in if anyone leaves, but you would think most of them would know they're not getting in," he said. "Maybe they'd rather wait in line for a while than go back to their desks."

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