On Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez courted both cries of loud support from her supporters and mockery from her detractors with a single tweet, which is to say it was a day ending in the letter “y.”
Shock doesn’t begin to cover it.
Today I left a hearing on homelessness & saw tons of people camped outside committee.
I turned to my staff and asked if it was a demonstration.
“No,” they said. “Lobbyists pay the homeless + others to hold their place so they can get in 1st.” pic.twitter.com/mXbgqkKp4P
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) February 13, 2019
In her tweet, seen above, Ocasio-Cortez professed shock upon learning — just now, today — that lobbyists were paying the homeless and others to stand in line to save seating for said lobbyists at public hearings. And in this particular case, as if the optics weren’t bad enough, it was a hearing on the topic of actual homelessness.
As it turns out, lobbyists paying people to stand in line on their behalf for public hearings is a somewhat big cottage industry in DC — big enough to have its own powerful, bill-killing lobbyists. The only federal body that holds public hearings that does not allow the practice, it turns out, is the Supreme Court. The practice of paid line-standing, combined with the amount of money lobbyists have to spend on things that you don’t, has joined forces with standard competitive market forces to make the simple act of getting into a public hearing a bonkers affair. Lobbyist-paid line-standers will get in line and take most or all of the seating count up to 30 hours before a hearing is scheduled. If the public starts coming 30 hours prior as well, lobbyists will simply pay for additional hours, and make it even more impossible for non-lobbyists to attend the hearings. (It appears that this market-driven inflation of line-standing time has been ongoing for over a decade.) The line-standing service companies charge up to $40 an hour for each butt-in-seat placement. And because the lines usually go all the way out the main door, quite a few of them do it in whatever weather happens to be making DCers miserable at the time. (It turns out that many of the service companies view the homeless people they hire as independent contractors to avoid minimum wage laws, so if you were worried the poor might be benefitting too much from the whole arrangement you can rest easy.)
As paid line-standing is apparently business-as-usual at all Congressional hearings, someone sufficiently cynical and snark-filled — say, for example, me — might well wonder what on earth Ocasio-Cortez thought all the other lines of homeless people she passes daily were, prior to today. Maybe today’s “shock” was pure theater for the rubes, feigned at a time when she had been out of the news for hours; or maybe she thought the hearings rooms were used as soup kitchens on their off hours; or perhaps as she’s been walking though the Capital Building she’s been too busy deleting Direct Twitter Messages from Ben Shapiro daring her to debate him about Socialism over cocktails at this darling little bistro he knows that is totally classy and has these seats that people say make him look taller. Who knows?
Regardless of Ocasio-Cortez’s true motivations, what has stood out for me in all of this is how many people are fine with the idea of lobbyists paying poor people to stand in line for them at public hearings. And really, more than fine. Most people I’ve talked to thinks it’s a fantastic way to provide opportunities to societies most at-risk, like some kind of Federal Work Studies program that gives the poor the skills for a future career as office furniture. At least in my Twitter feed, lobbyists paying the poor to save them spots at public hearings is the first issue I’ve seen in years that unites progressives, libertarians, and conservatives alike. Which would be great, except for one thing: they are all very, very, very wrong.
Paying people to save all the seat seats for lobbyists at public hearings is terrible, and Congress should outlaw it — if not by law then at least by rule.
There are, in our American Democracy, a number of public activities that are in and of themselves Democratic Institutions. These institutions are important for various reasons, and many of those reasons are purely symbolic. And to be clear, when I say they are “purely symbolic,” I do not mean to diminish so such as elevate them. Because like it or not, institutions are nothing if stripped of their symbolism.
The most obvious of these Democratic Institutions is casting a vote, but there are others. The ability to throw your hat into the ring for public office is one. So too is being called to serve on a jury, albeit one that people often try to avoid. In a different era in this country, the draft lottery was another.
And, of course, there is the ability to attend and participate in a public hearing.
Part of what makes these public activities Democratic Institutions is that they all adhere, at least symbolically, to the idea that everyone has an equal chit. And while it’s true that both wealth and power ever make the world anything but equal, our society still rests on a foundational belief that the powers, rights, and obligations given to us by these Democratic Institutions should be non-transferable.
We would never (I hope) agree to let a wealthy lobbyist pay poor people for their ballots in an election. Nor would we allow someone with enough money to hire someone to serve on a jury on their behalf, or, should a future war force the need again, pay to opt-out of military conscription. Nor would we make it legal for lobbyists to directly and openly pay for legislation and executive order.
Have any of these things ever happened? Of course they have, each and every one of them — and they still do, to greater and lesser extents. But at the very least, they happen in the shadows, well within the embrace of plausible deniability, as all of these actions are illegal and need to remain so. Because, as previously mentioned, the symbolism of Democratic Institutions is important. Every time someone in power flouts them unchecked, the resolve of our democracy bows slightly more. Push hard enough, and it will break. Break it, and see just how much the enemy of good perfect truly is.
Public hearings are a central part of a democracy. And part of what makes them public is… well, the whole being public thing. Even if no one shows up to one, the very fact that anyone could is important, if in no other way than at least symbolically.
Might lobbyists still find a way to game things in the shadows, were paid line-standers made verboten? Probably. But we don’t have to make lobbyists keeping the public out of public hearings a proper and legal thing. And we certainly don’t need to applaud them for doing so. At the very least, make it worthy of a scandal and a penalty when they get caught. We do at least that much to protect all our other Democratic Institutions. Do the same for public hearings.
And maybe whatever we do at this point is purely symbolic. But that’s okay.
The symbolic is really important too.