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Homeless stand in for lobbyists on Capitol Hill

  • Story Highlights
  • Contracted line-holders stand for hours to ensure their clients get seats
  • Seats at hearings often only chance for lobbyists to get face time with legislators
  • Line-standers, some homeless, are paid anywhere from $11 to $35 an hour
  • Critics see practice as another way lobbyists are buying influence on Capitol Hill
By Tara Palmeri
For CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Once he roamed the streets, moving from shelter to shelter. Now, Oliver Gomes rubs shoulders with Washington's elite.

Lobbyists pay people to stand in line for them because the hearing is often their only face time with legislators.

Oliver Gomes says working in the halls of Congress gave him the motivation and money to get off the streets.

Squatting next to a white wall outside a Senate hearing room recently with a cell phone glued to his ear, Gomes is being paid to hold a place in line for a lobbyist at a hearing on the climate-change bill.

Gomes -- 6 feet tall, with long curly hair pulled back, wearing a polo shirt and shorts -- is one of the contracted men and women holding places in line for this hearing. Many have been waiting since midnight to ensure their clients a seat.

By 9 a.m., more than 100 people are lined up for the hearing. Only 10 seats are available to the public, and the first 10 spots are held by line-standers. The rest are shut out.

Though the practice is controversial, Gomes said it has lifted him from life on the street.

"Sitting in the halls of Congress made me feel a little better," he said. "It elevated me and made me feel like, well, you know, maybe I do belong here, maybe I can contribute even at that little minute level." Video Watch Gomes tell his story »

As the need for couriers on Capitol Hill declined with e-mail and fax, courier services like Quick Messenger Service of DC, Inc. have added the service of contracting men and women to hold places in line for lobbyists at hearings.

The seats are valuable to lobbyists because the hearing is often their only face time with legislators.

For big hearings with limited availability, line-standers may wait 20 to 30 hours. They're paid anywhere from $11 to $35 an hour.

Gomes was living in a shelter when he started line-standing. He said working in the halls of Congress gave him the motivation and money he needed to get off the streets. He now makes extra money by recruiting men for the line-standing services from the homeless shelters where he used to stay.

"When I was down and out and I was on the Hill and I had that little bit of hope that while I was actually here, it gave me the incentive to dress a little better, more professional," Gomes said.

Many of the contracted line-standers are homeless or formerly homeless like Gomes.

Williams Howard Johnson Jr., one of Gomes' recruits, found his bright yellow button-down shirt, green patterned tie, and slacks at a donation center because he wanted to dress well for his job.

"That comes from being a part of something that's really meaningful to not only me but to society," Johnson said.

Johnson was among those who had been in line since midnight for the 10 a.m. climate-change bill hearing, but he said he was happy to be there.

"I'm a part of something today and I'm very happy about that," Johnson said.

Although Johnson and Gomes are glad to have a job and a feeling of importance on Capitol Hill, many people are opposed to the practice of hiring line-standers.

Kalen Pruss, a fellow at the Internet environmental group avaaz.org, and her group of cheering green T-shirted environmentalists were shut out of the hearing.

"It's very unfortunate that the people who come here to line-stand always beat us here cause they can stand here all night," Pruss said.

John Winslow, director of linestanding.com, said the committees might be creating the lines by limiting the number of seats for the public in the hearing rooms. At this hearing, some of his clients that paid for line-standers to wait at midnight were not able to get into the hearing.

"It's really a question of logistics, how many people does the committee want to service," Winslow said. "And it seems like overwhelmingly they try to limit the number of people who attend these hearings and that just drives up demand artificially."

Critics see the practice as just another way lobbyists are buying influence on Capitol Hill. In 2007, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri introduced legislation to ban the practice of line-standing.

"I have no problem with lobbyists being in hearings, but they shouldn't be able to buy a seat," McCaskill said. "It seems to me that if we are going to make sure lobbyists aren't buying meals for senators, and we are going to make sure lobbyists aren't buying elected officials gifts, then we ought to make sure they aren't buying seating at a public hearing."

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Maria Foscarinis, an advocate for the homeless, thinks it's ironic that some of the most powerful people in the country are using some of the most vulnerable to hold a place in line for them.

"They're likely to be standing in line for people who well may be opposed to universal health care that would be a benefit for poor and homeless people," Foscarinis said. "And yet they may be standing there for the purpose of access for the interests that are opposed to their own."

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