LA Times, April 5, 2004

Commentary

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Do You Know Your Place?

Paying people to stand in line eases access to power for the few -- and undermines democracy
by Brian Montopoli


Jim Keegan, reclining in a well-worn folding chair on the sidewalk, was casually flicking chicken salad off the front of his T-shirt. Down the street, a group of men played a nearly silent game of cards, while next to Keegan another man sewed a tear in his backpack.

It was two days until a House Financial Services Committee hearing was scheduled to take place in the Rayburn Building around the corner, and the people lined up at Washington and D streets had settled into stasis for the 48-hour wait.

They were in line for an event they would never see, counting the hours until well-heeled lawyers or lobbyists would show up, 15 minutes or so before the hearing began, and, with a nod, take their places.

Place-holding, a practice that was once derided in the nation's capital, has over the years become an institution. Here's how it works: When a congressional hearing is held, a limited number of seats is made available to the general public. These seats are highly coveted by Washington's army of influence peddlers -- the lawyers and lobbyists whose job descriptions entail leveraging personal and professional relationships in order to affect legislation on behalf of their corporate clients.

The desperation is so great to be present at everything from markups of mortgage bills to obscure but potentially lucrative changes in the tax code that one must get in line in advance, or have virtually no chance of getting in. But influence peddlers, of course, would never dream of spending two days in line on the street outside a congressional office building, particularly if it involves unrolling a sleeping bag at night on Capitol Hill. So they pay someone else to do it for them.

Most of the place-holders aren't homeless, but some aren't far from it. Though they often characterize themselves as between jobs, place-holding is a career for a number of the mostly middle-aged men and women in the line. Most dress in ratty clothes, and, at least after the longer waits, they carry the smell of life on the street.

For security reasons -- and also, presumably, aesthetic ones -- place-holders are only allowed inside in the hours shortly before a hearing is scheduled to begin. Most of the time, they are forced to wait on out-of-the-way sidewalks that get little pedestrian traffic.

Two companies control about 80% of the place-holder market: Congressional Services Co. and the CVK Group, which each maintains a list of on-call place-holders. Congressional Services, which was formed in 1993 by a former CVK employee, charges its clients $32 to $40 per hour for each spot in line, and then passes $10 to $15 an hour on to the place-holders.

"We help maximize the time YOU spend on Capitol Hill, so you can spend your time meeting with the right people and attending the right events, instead of spending your time standing in line," says the Congressional Services website. "But don't just take our word for it: Compare our fees to YOUR billable hours."

Most place-holders look out for each other, protecting spots in line if someone needs to get something to eat or use the bathroom, as long as he or she isn't gone too long. But the work isn't easy. Capitol Hill police sometimes enforce regulations prohibiting place-holders from sitting down on the public sidewalks, making it virtually impossible for them to get any real sleep for days on end. And when the rain or snow comes down, they have little or no protection from the elements.

Students of American democracy know that place-holding is a rare find: a window into the workings of money in politics, something both ubiquitous and maddeningly difficult to pin down. Because ostensibly public hearings have been transformed into more-or-less private affairs, representatives of nonprofit organizations, protesters and average citizens have been effectively shut out of one of the few participatory aspects of the political process. And, sadly, it is Washington's most disenfranchised - those forced to find whatever work they can in a city racked by poverty - who make such a system possible.

That's particularly dispiriting because the place-holders represent the archetypal aspiring American. They help one another and endure demeaning work in harsh conditions in order to make ends meet. The companies that have sprung up around the practice reward reliable workers with management positions. The "by your bootstraps" mentality mythologized by Horatio Alger is more vital in the world of place-holding than it is in many other aspects of American life.

But the unapologetic embrace of place-holding by lawyers and lobbyists reflects a nation very different from the one celebrated by Alger. The place-holders I've spoken to view their job as nothing more than a mutually beneficial exchange of dollars for services. They've become so accustomed to the pervasive influence of money in politics that they see nothing inherently objectionable about access to the democratic process - seats, almost literally, at the table - effectively becoming a salable commodity.

Place-holding provides a stark reminder of just how far removed everyday citizens have become from the political process and how automatically wealth confers proximity to power.

Eliminating the practice would be a small step in defense of democracy but a meaningful one, a message from legislators that they don't hold in contempt those constituents who lack means.

Shouldn't access to the workings of public officials be in the public domain, available to whoever is willing to sacrifice his or her time?

Unlike money, it's a resource we all share in equal measure.

Brian Montopoli, whose writing has appeared in the Washington Monthly, State and Legal Affairs, is a reporter with Columbia Journalism Review's media watchdog website: www.campaigndesk.org.

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