WASHINGTON — The line began forming on a Monday afternoon. By Tuesday night, more than 75 young people were camped out in front of the Rayburn House Office Building with blankets, backpacks and at least one portable TV, in a scene that looked more like the queue to a rock concert than a congressional committee session.
Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., the House Commerce Committee room's doors were to open and the first 65 or so people in the line would get seats inside, where lawmakers planned to advance legislation to overhaul the nation's telecommunications laws. But most of the line-standers could not care less about the bill. At the door, they were to relinquish their places to lobbyists, who would get into the hearing without waiting. Their "body doubles" earn $10 an hour holding their places.
By day's end, John Likens, 25, and Chris Van Horne, 29, the founders of two companies that dominate the line-standing business in Congress, would take in a total of roughly $55,000.
Almost since queues were invented, people have been getting others to do the standing. In Congress, people previously have stuck interns or other junior members of their staffs with the duty. Occasionally, couriers were hired.
But Likens and Van Horne have made a thriving, stand-alone business of it. Likens' Congressional Services Co. and Van Horne's CVK Group, rivals in the field, each took in more than $250,000 in revenue in 1994, the owners said. They control more than 80% of the congressional line-standing business, not through any formal franchise but through vigorous promotion and reputations for reliability.
Not everyone is happy about their success. Lobbyists are starting to complain that the all-nighters are getting out of hand. One-upmanship between the two companies means that the waits are starting earlier and becoming more costly--on that Monday evening, Congressional Services beat CVK by putting 45 people into line a full 42 hours before the hearing.
Surrogates say they like the work. "I enjoy being outdoors," said Mike Dunigan, a Congressional Services place-holder who had put in 111 hours in the previous two weeks. "We're not obnoxious. We're well behaved. And we're just trying to make a living."
The two companies charge anywhere from $25 to $32 an hour for the service.
Many of those interviewed said they pay it gladly.
"If I go stand in line for a meeting, it's going to cost my client 195 bucks an hour," said John Fithian of the law firm Patton Boggs. "This way, I can go lobby in the morning, grab members and staff while somebody keeps my place in line. It's cost-effective."