The scandal developing over the high school pages who serve Congress could have been avoided. There were signals on the horizon that should have led to action, and did not.
Nearly six years ago, the House Education and Labor Committee held hearings on the Capitol page school, the District of Columbia- run high school operated for pages. There had been questions about its program and adequacy for students who work full-time.
But as the testimony unfolded, another issue began to emerge--the lack of supervision of the pages during their non-school and off-duty hours. At that hearing, House Doorkeeper James Molloy warned that the supervision issue was "a potential time bomb" that had to be addressed. Rep. Bill Goodling (R- Pa.) said that he lived for a time in the building that also housed some pages and as a parent he found the experience "frightening."
A former page who graduated from the page school in 1976 told the committee: "At the dormitories there were no check-in and check-out times. Nobody kept tabs on you. If your friends didn't keep tabs on you, nobody would know where you were from Friday night to Monday morning. There was a lot of freedom that they were able to exercise. They took advantage of it."
We're talking about no one to look after the welfare of those as young as 14, many of whom come to Washington with no experience in how to handle living away from home and with no idea how to cope with the capital's high-powered political environment.
In 1977, I paid an unannounced visit to the page school to check up on the education the pages were receiving and to talk with some of them about their problems. Most had complaints. But most also felt the page system should remain open to those of high school age.
I then introduced a bill calling for the creation of the page school board made up of members of the House and Senate and the chief staff officers of those bodies. My bill died at the end of the 95th Congress, and I introduced it again in 1979. It was difficult to generate any interest. However, after meeting with Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), I agreed to support another bill he introduced in August 1980 to create a U.S. Capitol Page Board for their supervision and education. This approach goes right to the heart of the problem: no one person or body is responsible for the overall welfare of the pages. Various officers of the House and Senate, committees of the House and Senate and the leadership of the House and Senate all bear some responsibility. But we don't put that responsibility into one well-defined structure.
Unfortunately, that bill arrived on the scene too late for action in the 96th Congress. It has not been introduced in the 97th Congress, but it offers hope for straightening out a situation that appears to represent the exploding "time bomb" that Jim Molloy warned about six years ago.
Another step that would make supervision of the pages' living conditions infinitely simpler and more effective would be to bring them together into one supervised living environment. Jim Molloy has said that the real solution would be for Congress to build a dormitory to house and supervise the pages. There is an authorization in the law for the construction of a dormitory and school. House Majority Leader Jim Wright's plan to fully amortize the cost of such a building through rent payments costing the pages no more than what they now pay to private landlords is a good and responsible one and ought to be promptly examined.
We owe these young people and their parents more than they are getting. It's not enough to say that they receive a handsome salary (which they do, for people their age) and a decent education. We must strive for the well-being of the pages during their stay here. They are our responsibility. If we are unwilling to assume greater responsibility, then we should shift to college-age pages.
A scandal is brewing as a result of our failure to be specific in delegating responsibility. Congress should at least establish a board to look out for the education and welfare of the pages. Otherwise, Amy Carter may remain the only page whose parents know she is being looked after well.