End of House Page Program is bittersweet for some lawmakers

August 31, 2011

A rare example of bipartisan agreement over cost-cutting is about to leave many members of Congress with a conundrum: Who will fill their water glasses, raise flags over the Capitol building and ring the bells that notify them that it’s time to vote?

Concerns about how such mundane tasks will henceforth happen weren’t enough to prevent House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from a meeting of the minds earlier last month, when they made the House Page Program the latest victim of the austerity tide that has swept Washington. The program’s final day: Aug. 31, 2011.

There are fledgling efforts to save the 184-year-old program: One group of former pages offered to take over its funding and administration, but they were reportedly rebuffed by the House leadership; others have taken to the Internet, forming a Facebook group to rally support.

But the program’s imminent demise leaves a small number of lawmakers waxing nostalgic about their own brief experiences as Capitol errand-runners.

“I view it as a pivotal moment in my life,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was a “30-day wonder” in the House Page Program during the late 1960s. “I came away with the thought that this might be something I’d want to do someday.”

About 70 high school juniors participate in the program each semester and summer. Although their main duties involve answering phones and delivering messages for lawmakers, the program is also a bonding experience: Pages study at the House Page School and live together in a residence hall on Capitol Hill; they’re paid about $1,800 a month, from which a 35 percent room-and-board fee is deducted, according to the program’s Web site.

Both Wicker and his roommate that summer, former Colorado governor Bill Owens (R), went on to careers in politics. And for Wicker, who served in the House for six terms before being appointed to the Senate in 2007, the return to Congress nearly three decades after serving as a page was a circular one: Wicker believes he’s the only person ever to succeed in office the man who appointed him a page, former representative Jamie L. Whitten (D).

Like several other members who served as pages, Wicker said the value of the program was not so much in running errands as in being able to “witness history” on the House floor.

“I got to hear the president of Mexico speak to a joint meeting. I got to meet candidate Richard Nixon. . . . Shirley Temple Black was running for the House, and I managed to get her autograph. . . . It was just a wonderful education for a young man who was interested in public policy,” Wicker said.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who worked as a page from 1936 to 1941 while his father served in the House, said that there is “enormous value” in learning firsthand how Congress works.

“It gave me the chance to understand what it meant, how our system of government works,” said Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress. “Not just technical things like how you introduce a bill . . . but you get an understanding of the underlying theory of what the Founding Fathers intended that this body should work like.”

Dingell recalled being in the chamber in December 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on lawmakers to declare war on Japan. Dingell was charged with taking care of Fulton Lewis Jr., a well-known conservative radio broadcaster who was there to record the president’s speech.

“I was only supposed to let him record what President Roosevelt said,” Dingell said. “I thought it was important enough I let him tape the whole proceedings. And that’s become an important part of the history.”

Despite the nostalgia, the storied program has had its share of scandal. In 1983, there was the revelation that Reps. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) and Dan Crane (R-Ill.), had had sexual relationships with pages; Crane lost his reelection bid while Studds, who had a same-sex affair, served for 15 more years. In 2006, Mark Foley, a six-term Florida Republican, resigned in the wake of allegations that he had for years sent explicit messages to male pages.

Pelosi and Boehner said in their announcement that it was cost, not controversy, that impelled them to end the $5 million-per-year program.

Although the program itself has been the subject of scandal, more often than not, pages get to see what happens when members of Congress make decisions that can swiftly end their careers.

“Adam Clayton Powell [D-N.Y.] was being removed when I was there, so that was a vivid memory,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who served as a page for about four weeks in the late 1960s.

The lesson of seeing such scandals unfold? “They’re all mortal, you know that — and they’re all sinners,” Cooper said.

Although some members who once served as pages have penned a letter asking Boehner and Pelosi to reconsider their decision, not all believe that the program should be saved.

Cooper characterized the experience as “more of a hands-on vacation” than a work experience: “The question is whether it’s worth it to the taxpayers to provide this opportunity. . . . Most pages will probably tell you which member has the best comb-over or who polishes his shoes,” but they will not learn to explain things such as how Medicare and Social Security work, he said.

Although the House will be without its water-glass fillers and bell ringers when the chamber reconvenes next week, the Senate Page Program will continue. Wicker said he hopes that if the time comes for the Senate to consider ending its program, leaders will do so in an open process.

“I would hope that we might have hearings on it or might have some sort of deliberations rather than have the decision made as it was in the House,” he said.

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