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Paging Through History
Comments () | Published January 11, 2012

Up till 1982, the House and Senate page programs were unified; afterward they were separated. That year, a House Page Board was created, recommending the establishment of a residence hall, complete with curfews and bed checks, as well as a House page school. The board also proposed that pages be in their junior year of high school and be limited to one year of service.

By that time, girls and African-Americans had been serving as pages for more than a decade. New York senator Jacob Javits appointed the first black page to the Senate in 1965 and the first females in 1971. The House followed suit, also appointing its first black page in 1965. House speaker Carl Albert appointed the first female House page in 1973.

Many pages have gone on to distinguished careers in public service and business, including Bill Gates, who was a House page in the summer of 1972. Former senator Chris Dodd was a page. Current members who were pages include Michigan representative John Dingell, who served during the presidency of FDR; Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi; Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee; and Representative Dan Boren of Oklahoma.

Early last August, after Congress adjourned for its summer recess, House speaker John Boehner and minority leader Nancy Pelosi announced the end of the House page program. Technology such as cell phones and BlackBerrys had rendered pages unnecessary, they said, and eliminating the program would save $5 million a year. However, perhaps as a response to member protests, Pelosi announced in the fall that she would establish a program to allow House members to "loan" their college interns to the Democratic cloakroom for temporary stints.

The decision to cancel the program was harshly criticized by former pages and members of the Capitol Page Alumni Association, which represents 11,000 former pages. Some members of the association created a Facebook presence and organized a day of Capitol Hill lobbying to try to get the program reinstated.

Representative Dan Boren protested that the decision had been made without input from members. Boren, 38, was a Senate page in the summer of 1988 when his father, David, was a senator from Oklahoma. "It was an incredible experience," Dan Boren says. "You do get to witness history."

He learned of the demise of the House program through news accounts: "I thought the timing was suspect, that all the members were gone when they made the announcement, like they knew it was going to be an unpopular decision, so they thought, 'Let's do it when everyone is out of town and maybe it will go away.' "

Boren and 29 other House Democrats sent a letter to Boehner and Pelosi expressing concern that cutting the program "will harm the institution of Congress as a whole." Boren and two fellow congressmen introduced a resolution to create an advisory panel of three Democrats, three Republicans, and three former House pages to make recommendations on how to restructure and continue the program; Boren has cited examples such as adding to page responsibilities, reducing their salaries, and raising money from foundations and former pages to fund the program.

House leaders had previously commissioned a study of the page program by a consulting firm, but that report was kept under wraps. Boren asked that the report be released. Some former pages speculate that it may contain embarrassing accounts of misbehavior by pages and that potential embarrassment to members—not just cost—was key to the leaders' decision to disband the program.

"It was one of the highlights of my life."   

In September 2006, Republican representative Mark Foley of Florida resigned after it was revealed that he had sent sexually explicit messages to male former House pages. After the story broke, the Los Angeles Times and ABC News reported that Foley had had sex with two former male pages after they turned 18. Many Republicans think the scandal had an impact on the 2006 election, when Democrats regained majorities in the House and Senate.

The following year, an investigation revealed that several pages had been expelled for shoplifting and for engaging in sexual acts in the elevator of the House page dorm.

Stories about pages behaving badly is the kind of publicity House leaders don't want, but they would do well to remember that the most prominent scandals and indiscretions involving pages originated with House members. No scandal concerning pages on the Senate side has ever been reported.

In economic hard times, it may be symbolically appealing to cut $5 million a year from the House budget, but ending the page program isn't like eliminating ice delivery to members' offices, an anachronism discontinued in 1996 by then speaker Newt Gingrich. The page program provides experience to young people that many former pages say changed their lives. Yes, many are children of the well connected or the offspring of members such as House majority leader Eric Cantor, whose daughter, Jenna, was a Senate page several years ago. But many pages earn the position through merit and determination.

Michelle Sturgill, now a fifth-grade teacher in Woodbridge, was appointed a page by then House majority leader Tip O'Neill and served from 1976 to 1978. "It was one of the highlights of my life," Sturgill says.

Says Robert Cuthbert, 34, a page in the fall of 1994: "Every door that has opened for me is a result of the program. It brought out the best in me." Cuthbert went on to the University of Chicago and then became an Army Ranger who has deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're throwing away hundreds of years of tradition. There's something important about the members having to confront the next generation on a regular basis."

Congressman Boren says a few bad experiences shouldn't doom the program: "With anything there's going to be an incident or two, but that's not a reason to shut the program down. I know if there was a House vote on ending the program, it would fail. It's important for the young people, but it's also important for the institution. It reminds us of why we're here. The page program is a part of who we are and our history."

At a time when congressional approval ratings are in the single digits—the lowest since pollsters have been keeping track—members of Congress could probably use an infusion of idealism and energy from their pages. Perhaps it's not the best idea to remove one of the few daily reminders members of Congress have that a future generation is counting on them to do the right thing.

Linda Killian's book "The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents" will be published in January. She is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and writes about politics for the Atlantic and Newsweek/the Daily Beast. She tweets at @lindajkillian.

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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