Ramblings & ephemera

Your job? Waiting in line for others.

From Brian Montopoli’s “The Queue Crew: Waiting in line for a living” (Legal Affairs: January/February 2004):

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. …

For the sake of logistics and appearances, the lines usually form outdoors and stay there until a few hours before a hearing. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

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.” …

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.)

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