House page program ends, a victim of budget ills and new technology
The House will eliminate the teenage pages who have carried legislators’ messages since the First Continental Congress, as e-mail, smartphones and budget woes combined to kill off a tradition older than the House itself.
The decision was announced in a joint statement issued by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The page program, which takes about 70 high school juniors a semester, costs more than $5 million a year.
The blue-jacketed pages were familiar extras in the Capitol’s dramas: In the early days, they tended fireplaces and delivered cocktails to members working late. More recently, they distributed drafts of thick legislation or passed notes to members on the House floor.
But now, documents move as attachments. Notes buzz on iPhones. So leaders decided that the pages were “no longer essential to the smooth functioning of the House.”
“After careful consideration,” Boehner and Pelosi wrote to members, “we have determined that the Page Program should be terminated at the conclusion of the current summer term.”
The Senate will continue to use pages. But the House program — which had been tarnished by two sex scandals in recent decades — was still mourned by Capitol old-timers, who said it brought earnestness and young people into a place with a permanent shortage of both.
“What? What . . . are they doing?” said Raymond W. Smock, a former House historian who is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia. “This is a diminishing of the kind of institutional glue that makes it possible for that place to be civil.
“If you have to be civil to the pages and if you have to treat them decently,” then members feel more inclined to be civil to each other, Smock added.
The House’s last class of pages finished their work Friday. This summer, as usual, their days began about 7 a.m., in classrooms in the attic of a Library of Congress building. After two hours of school, they walked through a tunnel into the Capitol, dropped bags off in a room called “the page cage” and waited for orders from the House floor.
Summer page Eyvana Bengochea, 17, of Coral Gables, Fla., said her duties could include taking copies of a lawmaker’s speech to be inserted in the Congressional Record. Sometimes, that involved chasing down a lawmaker who left in a hurry. Other pages rang the bells that signal members that the House is voting.
One recurrent conflict, Bengochea said, came when the House stayed into the evening to work on the debt-ceiling crisis.
“Everyone wanted to work late,” she said, so the pages would compete to be on the late-night crews. Her favorite moment came Aug. 1, when the House voted to approve a debt-ceiling agreement and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) made a surprise return six months after a devastating gunshot wound.
Afterward, Bengochea said, many summer pages inquired about coming back for another semester. No one gave any indication that the program was about to end.
“It’s a crazy thing. There’s no other thing where a high-schooler can be put into politics like that,” Bengochea said Monday as other alumni traded outraged messages on Facebook. “I don’t understand why they would cut it to save, like, pennies, basically.”
Pages made $1,804.83 a month, minus taxes and a 35 percent room and board fee. Boehner and Pelosi said the program cost the House about $69,000 to $80,000 per page per school year; their note doesn’t spell out who will now deliver messages and packages. The program was eliminated at a time when the GOP-led House is seeking to make itself a model for a smaller, more efficient federal government.
“I can see the logic,” said Jerry Papazian, a California consultant who heads the page alumni association. “I’m still sad about it. It’s too bad.” He said technology does much of the work he did as a page in 1971 and 1972. “In some ways, I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier.”
The House’s page program has been at the center of two sex scandals as lawmakers were accused of abusing the teenagers in the chamber’s care. In 1983, Reps. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) and Daniel B. Crane (R-Ill.) were censured for having sex with pages in separate incidents.
In 2006, Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned after reports that he sent inappropriate messages to House pages. Afterward, leaders pledged to improve oversight of the page program.
House pages trace their roots to two men selected to be “Door-Keepers and messengers” to the First Continental Congress in 1774. In the 1820s, the chamber’s messengers came to be known as pages: Historian Darryl J. Gonzalez wrote that their tasks included tending the House chamber’s fireplaces and delivering covert mint juleps to a speaker who liked to drink them through a long straw during sessions.
The pages, historians say, were a mix of well-connected youngsters and orphans in need of a job. The list of alumni include Microsoft titan Bill Gates and seven current members of Congress. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) was a page from 1936 to 1941, while his father served in the House.
The younger Dingell was in the House gallery when President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy.” His job was to mind a rowdy right-wing personality sitting in the gallery.
“I had the responsibility of making sure he didn’t cause a ruckus,” Dingell remembered. He didn’t. On Monday, Dingell said he had enjoyed recommending youths to serve as pages, then watching them grow into successful adults.
“And I’m not going to have the opportunity to do that anymore,” he lamented.
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.