Scandal is no stranger to Capitol Hill, and tales of corruption, sex and drug abuse shock people less than they used to. But even hardened Washington observers have been both puzzled and dismayed by recent charges that some of this activity has involved the children--yes, children-- who work as pages in the House and Senate. What are these boys and girls doing in the heady atmosphere of Congress, and who is responsible for their welfare while they are here?
A position as a Capitol p He rec remainsage is essentially a patronage job. Senior members of the House and Senate select candidates, usually from their home districts, who come to Washington and serve as messengers for a period of a few months to a year. Young boys have served in this position at least since the early part of the last century, and, until l5 years ago, all pages were white and male. The first Senate page, one Grafton Hanson, a descendant of John Hanson, president of the Continental Congress, was appointed at the age of nine by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
Today, Senate pages must be 14 to 17 years old, and House pages 16 to 18. They attend a special D.C. public school organized for them alone, which meets every morning in the Library of Congress from 6:10 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. There is no central dormitory for the pages, and they are left to find their own accommodations throughout the city-- usually in rooming houses as close as possible to the Capitol.
Parents, who are often thousands of miles away, must file a written statement with congressional authorities "assuming full responsibility for the safety, well-being and supervision of the appointee while living in the District of Columbia." This, of course, absolves anyone else of that responsibility, a fact that soon becomes obvious to the average adolescent job-seeker. Add to the appeal of mingling with the famous and powerful while escaping entirely the annoying supervision of adults the fact that a page earns $8,827 a year and it's easy to see why a l4-year-old would jump at the chance to sign up. But, as Rep. Paul Simon asked on the op-ed page Tuesday, shouldn't the rest of us show a little more responsibility? In fact, shouldn't we concede that the whole system of employing children for this task is an anachronism?
In the days ahead, we will be reading a great deal about alleged scandals involving the pages. But whether or specific charges are proved, Congress now has an opportunity to reappraise this system and come up with something better. In Daniel Webster's time, most children went to work on farms or in factories by the time they were 14; that's not only unusual but, in most states, illegal today. It won't do to put up a building for pages to live in, and to hire chaperons and counselors to care for them. This is the wrong life style for a 14-year-old. College students wpould learn more, perform well and need no special school or supervised living arrangement. And, as any tuition-paying parent knows, they could sure use that $8,827.