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Standing in line is stand-up job on Capitol Hill

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Rose and Zine Hosein have stand-up jobs — and get paid $15 an hour for it.

They have the ultimate niche occupation in Washington's influence economy, holding places in line for lobbyists outside crowded congressional hearing rooms. They bring folding chairs, coffee and patience.

Their days can start before 3 a.m., leaving them to wait — sometimes outdoors — for six hours or more. They take off after turning over their spot in line to their customers

In Washington, where access often equals action, lobbyists consider it crucial to attend congressional hearings or similar meetings in person. It's there that they can speak directly with key lawmakers and their staff during breaks or after the hearing. They can also see who else is in the audience and pick up subtle hints about how a lawmaker might be leaning on a subject critical to their clients.

Outside a recent health care hearing, the Hoseins were among dozens of placeholders awaiting their customers. Some leaned against the wall. Others looked like limousine drivers, carrying white signs with the names of people or organizations that they were holding places for.

Neil Scott stood several paces from the hearing room door with a stool in his hand. He said he passes the time in line by reading newspapers that he picks up at a nearby Metro station.

Scott, who's 69 and semiretired, has worked as a line-stander for three years. His work week is typically three days, sometimes only three hours a day. He said fellow line-standers are courteous when it comes to keeping an eye on one another's spots if someone peels off to grab food or take a break. "It's a sweet gig," he said.

The Hoseins work for linestanding.com, one of several companies that offer the unusual service. The company charges lobbyists and interest groups $36 an hour, with a two-hour minimum, to use a line-stander for hearings. Another company, Washington Express, also charges an hourly rate of $36, with a three-hour minimum. The line-standers earn a share of the amount.

"I'm like insurance for people when the legislation is so critical that they've got to make sure they get in," said John Winslow, director of linestanding.com.

Some consider the practice — started roughly 20 years ago — unfair, another advantage of big money in the government's policy-making process. Those who can't afford a place-holder or who can't get in line hours early may be denied a seat to watch Congress conduct the public's business.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was so bothered by the practice that she introduced a bill in 2007 to require lobbyists to prove twice a year that they had not paid anyone to save a seat for them at hearings. The legislation died, but her office says she plans to reintroduce the bill in the coming months.

"We need to make sure this place is available to the people who own it, and that's the people of this country, not the lobbyists," McCaskill said in 2007.

Winslow and line-standers say they aren't keeping people out of hearings. Anyone can get up early and wait with them, they say. People can watch hearings on the cable network C-SPAN or online. Plus, lawmakers could hold high-demand hearings in larger rooms with more seating for the public, they argue.

Winslow said he's helping fill a need created by a capitalist democracy. "If you spend any time on Capitol Hill, lobbying is part of what we are," he said.

Lobbyists want to be inside the room for real-time information, Winslow said. "It's vital to the lobbyist and their constituents, so that demand is never going to go away for as long as we have government."

Zine Hosein, 63, and Rose Hosein, 60, have been saving places in line for others for five years after their daughter told them about the gig.

"You get paid for doing nothing — just standing," Zine Hosein said, while standing outside a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, hours after staking out the health care hearing. He said he reads a book and talks to others in line to pass the time.


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