clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Paid line-standing: the bizarre congressional practice that shocked Ocasio-Cortez, explained

It’s one of the odder ways that lobbyists buy influence in Washington.

Teresa Filson (left) talks with Zine and Rose Hosein (right) as they stand in line holding place for lobbyists before a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill on July 30, 2009.
Susan Walsh/AP

On Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) exited a congressional hearing and stumbled onto a surprising sight: Capitol Hill’s line-standing industry.

Line-standing isn’t unique to Congress. You can read stories about people paying other people to stand in line to get into fancy restaurants, exclusive theater productions, or to get the newest iPhone.

But line-standing for congressional hearings is, arguably, a different circumstance. These are public hearings that, in theory, are open to all Americans. But hearing rooms don’t always have enough space to accommodate all those interested, and attendees are typically let in on a first-come, first-served basis.

Those who have the money to pay someone else to wait in line can essentially buy their way into the hearing — the thing that irked Ocasio-Cortez.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The Supreme Court banned the practice of paid line-standing in 2015 — and there has been congressional legislation to get rid of paid line standing inside the Capitol, too.

Washington’s paid line-standing business, explained

Washington has lots of fancy fundraising dinners, where the only way to get in is to make a large donation. But congressional hearings aren’t supposed to be like that. They’re open to the public, who secure a spot in the audience by lining up outside.

For a lot of hearings, this isn’t a problem. But for more high-profile events, it can be hard to nab a spot without showing up hours beforehand. Enter the professional line-standers: who, for the right price, will hold spots in line.

There is enough of a paid line-standing business in the nation’s capital that you can find multiple firms that offer the service to their clients, typically lobbyists. There are at least some reported cases of those holding spots in line being homeless, as Ocasio-Cortez asserted, although it’s unclear how frequently that happens., for example, advertises “high quality line standing services for Congressional hearings” and offers online booking.

Seat savers from mark spots spots in line for lobbying firms on Capitol Hill prior to a Senate hearing on October 17, 2007.
Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Washington Express, meanwhile, charges $40 per hour for “professional, competitively priced line-standing and seat holding services for congressional and judicial hearings.” The site notes that this firm has “developed significant expertise in all of the sometimes complex details of seat holding and linestanding.” (One of the complexities of line-standing that I’ve seen firsthand is scuffles about who is in front of who in the line).

Sometimes, those holding spots in line will stand behind a piece of paper that notes who their spot is for, as the Sunlight Foundation reported in 2011:

The line for the first organization meeting of the super committee snaked down a long hallway in the House Rayburn building last week, with people lining up just after the building opened at 7:30 a.m. and growing to about 75 people over the next three hours. Among the suit-clad staffers, lobbyists and citizens waiting to attend the 10:30 a.m. public hearing were several people dressed casually: jeans, T-shirts, shorts, biking gear.

Most importantly, they had sheets of paper that mark whose spot they were holding. When it gets close to hearing time, those sheets of paper come out and lobbyists begin to arrive to swap spots with the holders.

In 2005, the Washington Post reported on some especially long lines that were stretching outside of the Capitol in the middle of winter — meaning that line-standers had to wait in the cold.

That Washington Post story also got into why lobbyists are so keen to get into the hearing room in the first place. What’s so special, after all, about being in the room for an event that will be broadcast for free on C-SPAN?

“You want to be able to give your client the first-class treatment,” Gary Hymel, the chief lobbyist with Hill & Knowlton, told the Post. “You get eye-to-eye contact. ... This is reinforcing that you’re really interested and care.”

There was a bill to end paid line-standing. It didn’t get very far.

In 2007, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was a first-term senator. She came across the practice of paid line-standing and, like Ocasio-Cortez, was shocked.

“Once I realized this was happening, I was really offended,” she told reporters at the time. “This is the people’s government and these should be the people’s hearings. I have no problem with lobbyists getting into hearings, but they shouldn’t be able to buy a seat.”

So she authored a bill to ban paid line-standing. Her proposal would bar lobbyists from paying people to wait in line for them. And the penalties for breaking the rules would be stiff: up to $200,000 and five years in jail time.

The line-standing industry quickly rallied against the proposal. The owner of submitted testimony that argued McCaskill’s bill would eliminate “an industry that employs hundreds of entry-level workers, and instead creating positions for even more lobbyists, the bill would have the opposite effect of that intended. It wouldn’t change the composition of who ultimately sat in hearing rooms; it would simply increase costs for all involved.”

McCaskill’s proposal never left committee.

But across the street from Congress is the Supreme Court, and that body has taken some steps to tamp down on paid line standing. In 2015, the Court barred lawyers from hiring people to hold their spot in line. It announced that year that, “only Bar members who actually intend to attend argument will be allowed in the line for the Bar section; ‘line standers’ will not be permitted.”

That doesn’t mean paid line-standing is entirely gone from the Supreme Court. The Court maintains two lines to watch oral arguments: one for lawyers who have joined the Supreme Court bar, and one for the public. And in the line for the public, paid line-standing is still a perfectly acceptable practice.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.