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Paid line-standing shocks Ocasio-Cortez: the bizarre practice, explained

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On Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) exited a congressional hearing and stumbled onto a surprising sight: Capitol Hill’s line-standing industry.

Line-standing isn’t unique to Congress. You can read stories about people paying other people to stand in line to get into fancy restaurants, exclusive theater productions, or to get the newest iPhone.

But line-standing for congressional hearings is, arguably, a different circumstance. These are public hearings that, in theory, are open to all Americans. But hearing rooms don’t always have enough space to accommodate all those interested, and attendees are typically let in on a first-come, first-served basis.

Those who have the money to pay someone else to wait in line can essentially buy their way into the hearing — the thing that irked Ocasio-Cortez.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The Supreme Court banned the practice of paid line-standing in 2015 — and there has been congressional legislation to get rid of paid line standing inside the Capitol, too.

Washington’s paid line-standing business, explained

Washington has lots of fancy fundraising dinners, where the only way to get in is to make a large donation. But congressional hearings aren’t supposed to be like that. They’re open to the public, who secure a spot in the audience by lining up outside.

For a lot of hearings, this isn’t a problem. But for more high-profile events, it can be hard to nab a spot without showing up hours beforehand. Enter the professional line-standers: who, for the right price, will hold spots in line.

There is enough of a paid line-standing business in the nation’s capital that you can find multiple firms that offer the service to their clients, typically lobbyists. There are at least some reported cases of those holding spots in line being homeless, as Ocasio-Cortez asserted, although it’s unclear how frequently that happens.

Linestanding.com, for example, advertises “high quality line standing services for Congressional hearings” and offers online booking.


Seat savers from Linestanding.com mark spots spots in line for lobbying firms on Capitol Hill prior to a Senate hearing on October 17, 2007.
Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Washington Express, meanwhile, charges $40 per hour for “professional, competitively priced line-standing and seat holding services for congressional and judicial hearings.” The site notes that this firm has “developed significant expertise in all of the sometimes complex details of seat holding and linestanding.” (One of the complexities of line-standing that I’ve seen firsthand is scuffles about who is in front of who in the line).

Sometimes, those holding spots in line will stand behind a piece of paper that notes who their spot is for, as the Sunlight Foundation reported in 2011:

The line for the first organization meeting of the super committee snaked down a long hallway in the House Rayburn building last week, with people lining up just after the building opened at 7:30 a.m. and growing to about 75 people over the next three hours. Among the suit-clad staffers, lobbyists and citizens waiting to attend the 10:30 a.m. public hearing were several people dressed casually: jeans, T-shirts, shorts, biking gear.

Most importantly, they had sheets of paper that mark whose spot they were holding. When it gets close to hearing time, those sheets of paper come out and lobbyists begin to arrive to swap spots with the holders.

In 2005, the Washington Post reported on some especially long lines that were stretching outside of the Capitol in the middle of winter — meaning that line-standers had to wait in the cold.

That Washington Post story also got into why lobbyists are so keen to get into the hearing room in the first place. What’s so special, after all, about being in the room for an event that will be broadcast for free on C-SPAN?

“You want to be able to give your client the first-class treatment,” Gary Hymel, the chief lobbyist with Hill & Knowlton, told the Post. “You get eye-to-eye contact. … This is reinforcing that you’re really interested and care.”

There was a bill to end paid line-standing. It didn’t get very far.

In 2007, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was a first-term senator. She came across the practice of paid line-standing and, like Ocasio-Cortez, was shocked.

“Once I realized this was happening, I was really offended,” she told reporters at the time. “This is the people’s government and these should be the people’s hearings. I have no problem with lobbyists getting into hearings, but they shouldn’t be able to buy a seat.”

So she authored a bill to ban paid line-standing. Her proposal would bar lobbyists from paying people to wait in line for them. And the penalties for breaking the rules would be stiff: up to $200,000 and five years in jail time.

The line-standing industry quickly rallied against the proposal. The owner of Linestanding.com submitted testimony that argued McCaskill’s bill would eliminate “an industry that employs hundreds of entry-level workers, and instead creating positions for even more lobbyists, the bill would have the opposite effect of that intended. It wouldn’t change the composition of who ultimately sat in hearing rooms; it would simply increase costs for all involved.”

McCaskill’s proposal never left committee.

But across the street from Congress is the Supreme Court, and that body has taken some steps to tamp down on paid line standing. In 2015, the Court barred lawyers from hiring people to hold their spot in line. It announced that year that, “only Bar members who actually intend to attend argument will be allowed in the line for the Bar section; ‘line standers’ will not be permitted.”

That doesn’t mean paid line-standing is entirely gone from the Supreme Court. The Court maintains two lines to watch oral arguments: one for lawyers who have joined the Supreme Court bar, and one for the public. And in the line for the public, paid line-standing is still a perfectly acceptable practice.

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Oakland teachers strike: Union calls strike for pay, smaller classes

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Teacher frustration keeps spreading.

Public school teachers in Oakland, California, said they will strike on Thursday, following 18 months of tense negotiations with district officials over pay raises and classroom sizes.

“We have had it. Enough is enough, bargaining with our school district has not worked,” said Keith Brown, a middle school teacher and president of the Oakland Education Association, during a press conference on Saturday. “Our schools have been starved of resources for years.”

If they don’t reach a deal before Thursday, about 3,000 teachers won’t show up to work in one of the state’s largest school districts, which has struggled from years of budget cuts and poor student performance.

Teachers say the lack of investment in city schools is hurting student performance. The cost of living in Oakland has also skyrocketed in recent years, due to an influx of high-skilled workers unable to afford housing across the bay in San Francisco, making it impossible for teachers to live there on their current salaries, Keith said. Teachers want a pay raise, smaller class sizes, and more counselors and nurses.

The strike in Oakland would come a month after teachers in Los Angeles walked off the job with similar demands — and ended up getting a lot of what they wanted. At the time, LA officials said the same thing Oakland officials are now saying: We just don’t have the money.

Oakland schools are facing a $56 million budget deficit in the next two years, so the school board wants to cut school spending, not increase it. School officials are trying to get more money from the state, but teachers are ready to walk out. And they know they have leverage.

It’s just the latest strike in what’s becoming a national trend. More than 100,000 public school teachers in six states have walked out of class in the past year, rebelling from years of stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, and deep budget cuts to education. The strikes in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, California, and Colorado had broad public support, forcing state lawmakers to raise pay and fueling a national movement to boost investment in public education.

So far, that momentum shows no signs of slowing down.

Funding for public schools in California is a mess

Oakland teachers share a lot of the same frustrations that led LA teachers to walk out of class in January. They say school districts are spending too much money on privately run charter schools that have little public oversight. They also believe they are paid too little working in a state with much wealth.

California is among states spending the least on each student (adjusted for the cost of living), largely because of the state’s strict limits on property tax rates.

The Oakland Education Association, a labor union representing 3,000 educators, has been trying to negotiate a new contract since the last one expired in 2017. Teachers want a 12 percent pay raise over three years, smaller classes, and more support staff. One school counselor for every 600 students is not conducive to a student’s success, says Keith Brown, the group’s president.

The district has offered a 5 percent raise over three years.

Teachers rejected the offer.

“Unless there are dramatic changes to the district’s approach, including spending more money on students and for nurses and counselors, lower class size, and a living wage that will keep Oakland teachers in the classrooms, we will strike,” Brown said.

The school district has said it is willing to keep negotiating for a better deal to avert the strike, and would consider some recommendations from an independent panel, which found that low teacher pay, large class sizes, and school privatization were hurting Oakland schools. The report also acknowledges the state’s “complicated, flawed” system for funding public education.

“Despite our challenges, we are prepared with a comprehensive proposal to reach an agreement. If both sides are committed to settling the contract before a strike occurs —and we are — an agreement can certainly be reached without disrupting the educational experience for students, families and staff,” Oakland Schools Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said in a statement Saturday.

They have three days to try and reach a deal.

Teachers are leading a national workers revolt

A record number of US workers went on strike or stopped working in 2018 because of labor disputes with employers, according to new data released last week by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A total of 485,000 employees were involved in major work stoppages last year — the highest number since 1986, when flight attendants, garbage collectors, and steelworkers walked off the job.

Frustrated public school teachers were behind the year’s largest walkouts, but hotel housekeepers and steelworkers also organized strikes that lasted for days.

There are no signs that worker angst has subsided. So far, in 2019, teachers in two major cities have launched their own strikes. And in January, the Los Angeles teachers strike shut down the nation’s second-largest school district for more than a week.

As part of their deal with city officials, teachers agreed to a 6 percent raise and slightly fewer students in each classroom, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a labor union that represents about 34,000 public school teachers, nurses, librarians, and support staff in the city.

Last week, more than 2,000 teachers in Denver went on strike for three days. The school district ended up giving educators and extra $23 million in pay and agreed to overhaul the compensation system, which relied heavily on annual bonuses.

Now Oakland teachers are prepared to walk out, and Sacramento teachers may follow.

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