WASHINGTON — At 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jay Moglio was standing at the head of a line at the corner of 2nd and C streets near the Capitol.
By 7 a.m., when the building opened, he was first in line for a seat at a 10 a.m. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on consumer complaints about cell phones. But Moglio, a 47-year-old bicycle courier, had no intention of attending.
He's a professional "line stander." His job was merely to hold a place in line for a wireless industry lobbyist who showed up minutes ahead of the gavel. Moglio would pocket $70 to $90 for his time.
But to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a member of the committee, the practice was anti-democratic.
"Once I realized this was happening, I was really offended," she told reporters outside the hearing room. "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."
McCaskill introduced legislation Wednesday to bar registered lobbyists from doing just that at hearings in the same way they're barred from buying senators a steak dinner. The penalty would be the same, too: up to $200,000 in fines and up to five years in jail.
"I think America believes that money runs this place, and unfortunately, I think sometime it does," McCaskill said. "I think this is a great way for us to put our foot down."
To Moglio, whose early-morning vigils account for a quarter or more of his income, line standing is as democratic as can be.
"This is capitalism and a democracy," he said. "If somebody wants to (attend the hearing), they can come out here the same time we do."
McCaskill, a freshman, said she only recently discovered the practice. But it's just an example of one of the routine laws of physics on Capitol Hill: money buys access.
Lobbyists for corporations, trade associations and other well-heeled interests with business before Congress pay companies to secure them a place in line with no muss or fuss.
"Need to attend a congressional hearing but don't have the time to stand in line?" states an ad for a "seat holding service" in the classified section of a Capitol Hill newspaper.
They're particularly in demand for hearings that involve tax and regulatory issues.
"We show up really early for popular hearings and we wait for clients to make sure they get a good spot in the room," said John Winslow, director of linestanding.com, a local company. "The average income of a D.C. lobbyist is about $300,000 a year. Why not throw a little insurance in the mix to allow you to do your job effectively? It's business."
Several wireless industry lobbyists attending Wednesday's Commerce Committee hearing declined to speak publicly about the practice. But the consensus reflected another law of Capitol Hill: You need to be inside the room and a good lobbyist will figure out a way.
Most line-standing companies charge an average of $35-$40 per hour, but fees can run as high as $60 for last-minute requests. Of that, line standers usually earn between $11 and $15 hourly. They're usually retired persons, unemployed, students and people who work other jobs trying to supplement their income.
No one breaks a sweat and equipment is optional: A collapsible stool, books, newspapers and a very large Starbucks are the most popular.
McCaskill said she was sorry her efforts might cause some people to lose income, but she said, "I think the Founding Fathers would be, frankly, very embarrassed."
A few feet away, some line standers were sprawled across a marble stairwell, sleeping comfortably.