Political newcomers arriving in Washington only to be shocked by the extent to which lobbyists have inserted themselves in every crevice of the woodwork seems to be a semi-regular story. It repeats itself with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s first encounter with the lines of semi-professional line standers paid to wait outside hearing rooms so that high-paid lobbyists can secure premium spots in the audience without having to themselves wait up to 24 hours in the outside hallway. From her tweet:
Today I left a hearing on homelessness & saw tons of people camped outside committee. I turned to my staff and asked if it was a demonstration. “No,” they said. “Lobbyists pay the homeless + others to hold their place so they can get in 1st.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s staff is a bit inaccurate in suggesting line-standers are mostly homeless. Some are and some aren’t, but it’s become a more orchestrated, managed affair than it was when individual lobbyists would scrounge someone up to hold their spot so that they could continue to work congressional offices instead of being hallway-bound for hours at a time. The Washington Post has a rundown of the history of line-standers, noting that the current rate is about $48 per hour—but no word of how much of that goes to the human placeholders, and how much goes to the, sigh, dispatching company.
As for the larger question of why such a weird thing is done: Again, it is all about access and influence. Audience members in a congressional hearing have no role in committee process, and (short of outbursts) no influence on the proceedings. Lobbyists whose careers are dedicated to being as influential with lawmakers as possible want to be seen, by those they are lobbying, in the audience. They find it important to remind lawmakers that they are there, during deliberations. That they are listening.
Which is not at all creepy or dystopian, of course. Not a bit.
Congress has made sporadic noises about taking action to curb the use of line-standers in the past. It might be time to revisit the issue. It doesn’t seem too difficult to design a system allowing only the citizens that actually did the waiting part to enter. If lobbyists are that devoted to ensuring their faces can be seen in the audience, a new system can be devised in which line-standers are paid not to give up their places, but to wear large rubber masks depicting the specific lobbyist they’re meant to represent. Throw a corporate logo or two on there while we’re at it, just to clarify things.
With each passing year we seem to get a wee bit closer to removing the pretense of crafting laws via the results of regular elections, instead settling neatly into a scheme where industry figures propose the laws, write the laws out in detail, deliver the laws to Congress, pony up just enough cash to encourage a majority of legislators to vote for each one, and threaten the others with checks made out to their opponents. Lobbyists find it a highly productive use of time appear in a public hearing room and silently stare at lawmakers as they deliberate; you can surmise, from that, just how confident they are in their ability to intimidate the people with the actual votes.
Yeah, maybe we should do something about that. Maybe we should do something about a lot of things.